The Norman Conquests: ROUND AND ROUND THE GARDEN
Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 29th February, 2020
Ever ambitious, the Bear Pit Theatre Company have taken it upon themselves to stage Alan Ayckbourn’s classic comedy trilogy. To this end, the theatre has been transformed so that the plays can be staged in the round, as Ayckbourn originally intended. The action of the plays takes place in and around the same house over the course of a weekend and each play interlocks with the others like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle but the good news is, each piece stands alone in its own right to provide an entertaining couple of hours.
This one, as the title gives away, takes place in the garden. Annie (Lily Skinner) is planning a dirty weekend with brother-in-law Norman (Roger Ganner) but their departure is delayed until the arrival of brother Reg and his wife Sarah, stepping in to look after the invalid mother. Lily Skinner gives us all of Annie’s fretfulness and neuroses – a carer in desperate need of a break – while Roger Ganner shines as her unlikely paramour, the shabby, selfish Norman. The least likely thing about him is his job as a library assistant but then everything about Norman is inappropriate, and yet Ganner imbues him with a particular kind of charm.
Andrew Lear is the monstrous Reg, the kind of man who communicates by advising which A-roads you should have taken. Lear booms, dominating conversations, making empty vessel Reg a joy to behold. Vicki Jameson is also great as the haughty and frazzled Sarah, Reg’s longsuffering wife. Thomas Hodge is in superb form as Tom, a hanger-on who uses his status as local vet to keep coming around to tend to Annie’s cat. Hodge’s Tom is an affable twit – we quickly get the feeling this is a play about women’s frustrations with men, who are all infuriating in their own way.
We have to wait until the second act to encounter Norman’s wife Ruth – an ice-cold Zoe Mortimer, whose searing condemnations of the male sex give the play its social commentary. Ayckbourn writes women’s points of view exceptionally well, and Ruth is a prime example. “Oh, I suppose those kinds of women must exist,” she snaps, ”in books. Written by men.”
As you might expect from an Ayckbourn, these middle-class, middle-aged monsters are caught in a hell of their own making. Each character has their own moment and director Nicky Cox does a bang-up job of getting her actors to shine, balancing the tensions with the inherent humour, the farcical action and the wonderfully funny lines.
The set, designed by Cox together with Ginny Oliver, keeps things simple: an oblong of turf framed by paving stones, with a couple of things to sit on, and an unruly clump of foliage in a corner, is all you need. It’s a play about the people, not the garden, after all. The transformed auditorium keeps things up close and personal and it all works like a treat. A splendid ensemble giving a virtuoso performance of a fine piece of work. I can’t wait to see the other two!