SIDMOUTH – SIDMOUTH SUMMER PLAY FESTIVAL
MANOR PAVILION THEATRE
2 hours 10 minutes – 1 interval
Manor Pavilion Theatre Box Office – 01395 514413
REVIEW – CORMAC RICHARDS – 1 AUGUST 2019
When Alan Ayckbourn let it be known that he was writing a trilogy of plays, he was advised that they were not a good idea for the West End. As he has always premiered his plays at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough he has never looked much beyond the North Yorkshire coast initially with his works. Needless to say, when the plays, ‘The Norman Conquests’, did transfer to London, they were a huge success. With a cast that included Felicity Kendall, Penelope Keith, Michael Gambon and Tom Courtenay it gathered a raft of awards and is still justly admired.
The plays all take place on the same day in different locations of the same house, there is some interweaving between the plays, but there was no aim for them to be performed simultaneously as Ayckbourn would go on to achieve in ‘House and Garden’. So, two couples – Reg and Sarah and Norman and Ruth are visiting Reg and Ruth’s sister Annie who looks after their Mother (who is unseen) – machinations follow as attempts are made to pair up Annie with her single neighbour Tom.
Ayckbourn is peerless in bringing the ordinary into stark relief. There is nothing unusual about the characters or their lives, but somehow he makes it enormously entertaining. It takes a clever writer to make the very eating of Cornflakes so funny. On the face of it, therefore, Ayckbourn is easy; not so, it needs considerable skill from director and actors – a firm hand on the tiller and a light touch in delivery are essential to success.
‘Table Manners’, the first in the trilogy – though they can be performed in any order and singly, as here, is, I think the best of the three – certainly the funniest – and David Janson’s production is excellent at displaying Ayckbourn’s artifice.
Within Andrew Beckett’s well-appointed set, the characters sit, eat, chat, argue and entertain – none are terribly happy – mainly fed up with relationships. Annie is, perhaps, the saddest of all the characters – dowdy, unloved and unhappy – Jessica Kent is wonderful – lurching between frustration, tears and laughter. As her brother, Reg, Neil Smye is, seemingly, happy-go-lucky, but beneath the joviality is a bitterness – a nicely judged performance. Sarah, Reg’s wife, is given maybe a little too much caricature from Ellen Butler, but through that appears a sadness that runs deep. James Parkes makes Tom – the dullest of dull men – wonderfully…well, dull. It’s a lovely realisation. Ruth is the spikey sister to Reg and Annie and Julia Main makes the most of the most of her straight-talking myopic character. If there is one character that Ayckbourn is known for, it is Norman – the mercurial presence who binds and divides the other characters. Mark Laverty is playful, annoying, funny and cheeky in equal measure – the huge speech in Act One over the breakfast table is a real challenge which comes off pretty well – the actor will relax into it with every performance – but this is a fine piece of work
A few lulls in pace here and there are only minor quibbles, but in the main, this is a very good production with some performances to match. One will never see seating plans or lettuce leaves in quite the same way again. The play may be over 45 years old, but it is ageing very well.
Funny, sad and cringe-making at one time – another successful entry into the 2019 Summer Season at Sidmouth.
NORMAN – MARK LAVERTY
TOM – JAMES PARKES
SARAH – ELLEN BUTLER
ANNIE – JESSICA KENT
REG – NEIL SMYE
RUTH – JULIA MAIN
PHOTOGRAPHY – SARAH HALL
WRITER – ALAN AYCKBOURN
DIRECTOR – DAVID JANSON
DESIGN – ANDREW BECKETT
LIGHTING & SOUND OPERATION & DESIGN – STAGE TECHNICAL SERVICES LTD.
COTUME SUPERVISOR – JANET HUCKLE
SEASON PRODUCERS – PAUL TAYLOR-MILLS, STUART BURROWS, JONNY CLINES