Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy, The Norman Conquests, is a set of plays that takes place in parallel, involving the same six characters, during the same weekend, in three different parts of an English country home (garden, living and dining room). Round and Round the Garden takes place in a run-down garden, that, like the cracked plaster walls of the house and the well-worn folding chairs, has seen better days.
For those who have seen the first two plays of the trilogy, Table Manners and Living Together, it’s puzzling to wonder what more Ayckbourn can possibly have left for the third play. (See Barb Popel’s Apt613 reviews here and here.) While some of the action in the first two plays seeps from one to the other, there are preciously fewer hints of what takes place in the garden. As it turns out, plenty happens in the garden. So much so that Round and Round the Garden can definitely stand on its own for anyone who has not see the other two plays.
From the initial exposition, the performance is quickly paced. Annie, a single woman taking care of her bedridden mother, has plans to get away for a weekend “on her own” in Hastings. (Yes, the site of the original Norman Conquest in 1066.) Her friend, Tom, the local vet who is better with animals than people, is suspicious of her motives, but utterly misconstrues them. Annie has arranged for her brother Reg and his wife Sarah to care for mother in Annie’s absence.
We soon meet Norman, Annie’s brother-in-law, with whom she has planned “a dirty weekend”. Norman has diverted from their secret rendezvous and Annie fears discovery by Reg and Sarah. She tries to be enthusiastic about the coming weekend in Hastings, but blithers nervously, “We’ll get it out of our system… I’m making it sound like a laxative!”
For his part, Norman has bungled their reservations in Hastings; they are now bound for East Grinstead. Reg arrives, and he too misconstrues the situation. He believes that Annie has a rendezvous planned with Tom. As for Norman, Reg knows about “the unconventional relationship” between his sister Ruth and Norman. Reg suspects that Norman has “a bit on the side” not suspecting Annie. But soon enough Sarah comes to announce that Annie has decided not to leave, and knowingly tells Norman that there is nothing to keep him there.
Yet Norman refuses to go…
There is plenty of humour, both verbal and physical, for the audience to laugh at in this comedy (with serious undertones). For example, when Tom (not the sharpest knife in the drawer) refers to Annie’s cat (up a tree): “Look at the daft animal!”, Norman stares at Tom meaningfully. The dialogue is full of double entendres and zingers, which the audience perceives, but not always the characters onstage. The pacing is crisp and all six actors exhibit the precise timing to pull off the verbal and physical comedy. Kudos to John P. Kelly for his excellent direction, but he is also blessed with six superb actors to execute that direction.
The pot has been stirred. Norman’s wife (Annie and Reg’s sister) Ruth arrives in scene two and the fireworks begin. She sees through the pretences and, describing Norman, warns “He’s like a big friendly dog. If you don’t want him to lick your face, don’t offer him tidbits.”
Each of the characters struggles in her/his own way with the battle between their desires and the expectations of others. For instance, Annie’s mother insists that Annie buy romance novels with lurid covers and read them to her mother aloud. This task both embarrasses Annie and fills her with unsatisfied desires.
Reg and Sarah are frustrated with their marriage, but don’t know how to regain the spark they once had. Ruth is exasperated with Norman, but can’t conceive of leaving him.
And as for Norman…
Well you’ll just have to see for yourself where his desire for lust and conquest takes him.
At the second preview, about 2/3rds of the audience had seen the other two plays. The rest had seen none. Both groups laughed heartily during the show, and were abuzz in conversation during the intermission. They applauded with delight at the end.
You can be delighted too.
Round and Round the Garden runs in rotation with the other two plays in the Norman Conquests trilogy until October 10, 2015, when all three will be performed in one fell swoop at The Gladstone Theatre. For more details see the Gladstone website here.