SIDMOUTH – SIDMOUTH SUMMER PLAY FESTIVAL
MANOR PAVILION THEATRE
LIVING TOGETHER by Alan Ayckbourn UNTIL 3 JULY 2021
2 hours – 1 interval
Manor Pavilion Theatre Box Office – 01395 514413
REVIEW – CORMAC RICHARDS – 24 JUNE 2021
Let us not beat about the bush, the joy of returning to the Manor Pavilion Theatre in Sidmouth is akin to wrapping yourself in a favourite blanket and indulging in a mug of the silkiest hot chocolate money can buy.
The Summer Play Festival at Sidmouth has risen again following its cancellation in 2020; the loyal local theatre-goers are welcomed by the genial and ever-accommodating theatre manager, Graham Whitlock and, though there are some changes to the current season (fewer plays but running for two weeks each to help deal with uncertainties), little else has changed. But it should not be underestimated the enormous efforts that have been made to achieve this.
Paul Taylor-Mills – surely the busiest theatre entrepreneur in the UK at the moment – is producing his eight season here and ensuring that this most unique theatrical treat continues to set the bar very high.
So, first up, is ‘Living Together’, one of Alan Ayckbourn’s three ‘Norman Conquests’ – probably the work that cemented his place at the heart of British theatre. Written as a trilogy but constructed so that the individual plays can be performed in isolation, it is the final of the three performed at the Festival after ‘Round and Round the Garden’ in 2014 and ‘Table Manners’ in 2019.
The story of a weekend family get-together and how the stuffing is gradually knocked out of them all is jam-packed with the themes and characters which identify an Ayckbourn. No one can do ‘dysfunctional’ like him – it’s very much his leitmotif.
Ayckbourn comedies are never just that. This isn’t ‘roll in the aisles’ humour, this is the on-looker laughing at situations which they hope they don’t find themselves in. This is the humour of the well-chosen place name – East Grinstead in this case. This is the humour of the failed relationship and the machinations of those who assist the process. This is the humour of the unfulfilled, the unlucky and the unsatisfied.
Central to the story is Norman, an assistant librarian, married to Ruth, but has romantic entanglements with Ruth’s younger sister, Annie and her brother Reg’s wife, Sarah. He knows what he is up to, but, seemingly, can’t help himself. Wide-eyed and innocent, Joseph Clowser, ensures the audience never dislike Norman, thoroughly disreputable though he is; his desire to make all women happy just creates misery for all.
Bridget Lambert is in fine form as the utterly frustrated Sarah – frustrated by almost everything it seems, though with a ray of light on the horizon. Maybe.
Paul Cleveland gives a gem of a performance as Sarah’s husband Reg. A dull man, who bores everyone and who realises that the best company he can keep is his own. Cleveland’s delivery of some genuinely funny lines and his hilarious re-enactment of chess piece moves are counter-pointed by the moment when Sarah rejects Reg’s goodnight kiss – a seemingly happy-go-lucky man crumples before you. Perfect.
Claire Louise Amias, gives Ruth, Norman’s wife, an elegance, which he lacks and a sharp edge which he also lacks – a marriage of opposites. Annie looks after her unseen and unheard Mother with little assistance from her siblings and her despair is constantly on the verge of boiling over, which you completely get from Heather Wilkins. Annie is more than happy to accept the amorous advances of Norman whilst still holding a candle for the slow-witted Tom, a neighbouring vet – a tremendously affecting and effective Jonathan Ray.
‘Living Together’, like many Ayckbourn plays has so many layers and levels of appreciation and it takes a canny director to reveal these; Claire Evans is a self-confessed fan of the writer and with her hand on the tiller, you get a lightness of touch, a clarity of story-telling and a cast working in close harmony.
With a wonderfully detailed and comfortable set by the inestimable Andrew Beckett, the production illuminates the stage at the Manor Pavilion once again. With Paul Taylor-Mills in the audience we can only hope that this will be the start of another successful season and that he will want to bring his considerable skills, quality and knowledge to Sidmouth for many years to come.
This is high-class theatre and features many returning members of the company, but with new faces to Sidmouth to be seen too.
It’s great to be back!
NORMAN – JOSEPH CLOWSER
TOM – JONATHAN RAY
SARAH – BRIDGET LAMBERT
ANNIE – HEATHER WILKINS
REG – PAUL CLEVELAND
RUTH – CLAIRE LOUISE AMIAS
WRITER – ALAN AYCKBOURN
DIRECTOR – CLAIRE EVANS
DESIGN – ANDREW BECKETT
LIGHTING & SOUND OPERATION & DESIGN – STAGE TECHNICAL SERVICES LTD.
COSTUME SUPERVISOR – JANET HUCKLE
SEASON PRODUCER – PAUL TAYLOR-MILLS