by Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Mark Kilmurry
Photos by Prudence Upton
Reviewed by Ron Lee, CSP
Traditional English drawing room comedies are commonly called “chocolate box theatre” and I hadn’t seen one since the 1980s. Are they still relevant? Will they seem dated in these days of Twitter and Instagram?
It’s being tested at the Ensemble Theatre with Alan Ackbourn’s 1973 trilogy, The Norman Conquests, starting with Table Manners.
Annie (Matilda Ridgway) lives in an old English family home and is her unseen mother’s full-time carer. She is set to go on a weekend away with an unknown companion. Annie’s brother, Reg (Brian Meehan), is a real estate agent and wife Sarah (Danielle Carter) is an anally retentive, highly strung control freak and they agree to mind the mother while Annie’s away. Also on the scene is Tom (Sam O’Sullivan), the local vet who has unexpressed affection for Annie even though Annie has dropped a thousand hints. Tom makes early Hugh Grant characters seem self-confident and forthcoming.
When the identity of the weekend companion is revealed, the rest of the family is summoned to the house. They are sister Ruth (Rachel Gordon), a corporate type who doesn’t have time for much other than business, and her husband Norman (Yalin Ozucelik), an attention-craving man-child, but Norman happened to be closer to the house than was initially expected.
In this first part of the trilogy, anyone who has experienced or observed family dysfunction will identify with the timeless angles in this work. It was only the allusion to 1997 being in the distant future that I was reminded that it’s not set in the present day.
I had forgotten how clever Ayckbourn’s scripts are, and in this production, which at times crosses over into farce, it’s clear that each of the powerful company of actors are working for each other. Comedic timing is as much, if not more about, the reaction to the line as the line itself. With a script like this, it would be tempting to overplay the pauses, but Table Manners’ excellent cast, under the masterful direction of Mark Kilmurry, times the moments to perfection.
Can’t wait for the other two productions in The Norman Conquests.