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Norman Conquests, The (Table Manners; Living Together; Round and Round the Garden)

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A: Alan Ayckbourn Pf: 1973, Scarborough Pb: 1975 G: Trilogy of coms.; 2 acts each S: Dining room, sitting room, and garden of a rural Victorian English house, 1970s C: 3m, 3f(1) Table Manners. On a Saturday evening in July, Sarah has come with her husband Reg, an estate agent, to his mother's home to give Reg's sister Annie a weekend off from caring for their (unseen) cantankerous invalid mother. It is assumed that Annie will go off with Tom, a vet who woos her lackadaisically. Norman, Annie's brother-in-law, a scruffy assistant-librarian who dreams of sexual conquests, also arrives. Sarah soon learns that Norman, having had sex with Annie the previous Christmas, now intends to take her away for a dirty weekend to East Grinstead (because Hastings is fully booked). Sarah is so morally indignant (and secretly jealous) that Annie agrees to stay on, while Norman gets drunk to console himself. The following morning, Ruth, Norman's wife and Annie's elder sister, arrives, having been summoned by Sarah, and finds the idea of Norman's abortive affair hilarious. That evening, Sarah insists that they should all sit down for Sunday dinner in a civilized manner. Norman looks grotesque in his late father-in-law's clothes, and an absurd scene of false manners ensues. The following morning, Norman suggests taking Sarah away to Bournemouth, but also promises Annie that they will one day get to East Grinstead. (2) Living Together. The same events that occur in the dining room in Table Manners are re-enacted, but this time by characters in the sitting room. It is Saturday evening, slightly later than at the start of the trilogy: Reg, Sarah, and Norman have arrived at the house. Norman is supposedly due to go to a librarians' conference but claims it has been cancelled. Sarah confronts Norman over his plans to have a dirty weekend with Annie. Annie apologizes to Norman for backing off, and Tom tries to find out from Norman where he's going wrong in his courtship of Annie. Norman gets drunk on home-made wine and falls asleep on the floor. After dinner, Reg insists that they play a dreadful game that he has invented. Norman awakes and tries drunkenly to phone his wife Ruth. On Sunday evening, Ruth expresses her regrets about coming to the house. Norman sneaks an embrace with Annie but is discovered by Sarah. As the two squabble over Norman, Ruth enters and insists that Norman come to bed with her. Instead, he takes her on the hearthrug. The following morning, Norman begs Ruth to take the day off work. Sarah and Annie are shocked at Ruth's sleeping with Norman. Sarah tells Reg that she would like to get away to Bournemouth for a weekend. (3) Round and Round the Garden. The same events are re-enacted by characters in the garden. It is Saturday evening before any of the guests have arrived. Tom has come to say goodbye to Annie. Norman arrives unexpectedly early, and Annie begs him to wait for her in the village until after Reg and Sarah have settled in. Unfortunately, Reg and Sarah arrive before Norman can get away. Sarah announces that Annie will not be going away after all. On Saturday evening, after his drunken phone call to Ruth, Norman is helped into the garden to sober up. He and Sarah end up kissing passionately. When Sarah goes, Annie comes to apologize again about the ruined weekend and invites Norman to her room. On Sunday morning after breakfast, Sarah cannot believe how indifferent Ruth is. Ruth attempts to provoke Tom into some display of emotion, which leads to a jealous row between Tom and Annie. On Monday morning, there is a frosty leave-taking, and Norman contrives to smash his car into Reg's, so that no one can leave. Ruth suspects him of doing it deliberately in order to prolong his ‘conquests’, but all three women turn their backs on him, as he shouts: ‘I only wanted to make you happy.’Ayckbourn is frequently compared to Chekhov, who offers the same tolerant amusement at the foibles of humanity. As Ayckbourn wrote in his Preface to The Norman Conquests: ‘the more fond of people I become, the more amusing I tend to find them’. In this deft interweaving of the same events viewed from different locations, Ayckbourn looks deeply into the clumsy way in which we relate to each other, exemplified by the ambiguous figure of Norman, well meaning but inept.


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Alan Ayckbourn (b. 1939) English dramatist