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Table Manners is a complete success

By Barbara Popel on August 30, 2015

Table Manners is the first of a theatrical triple-header at The Gladstone and, I believe, a first for Ottawa.

As a result of a flippant remark to a reporter in 1973, Alan Ayckbourn found himself committed to writing a trilogy of plays.  The result was his brilliant classic, The Norman Conquests.

Ayckbourn’s three plays share the same 6 characters.  There are 2 sisters – Ruth the businesswoman who is married to Norman the assistant librarian, and Annie the spinster who is caring for their mother.  Their brother Reg is an estate agent who is married to Sarah, a stay-at-home mother.  The sixth character is Tom, a neighbouring veterinarian whom Annie keeps hoping will propose to her.

Each play relates what happens during a rather fraught weekend at the family’s country home, first in the dining room (Table Manners), then in the living room (Living Together) and lastly in the garden (Round and Round the Garden).  Although each play meshes with the other two, each can also stand on its own, that is, you don’t need to see the first play to make sense of the second or third plays, nor must you see the plays in order.  But if you do, the experience is richer.

As is true of other Ayckbourn plays I’ve seen, there’s lots of serious material hiding in the comedy.  Everyone is self-centred and looking for personal gratification via sex, food or power.  The two marriages are toxic.  Annie is suffocating in her role as her mother’s sole caregiver.  Her love for Tom is unrequited; he seems unacquainted with adult emotions.  Norman claims to be a randy “3-a-day” man, and complains of being “a gigolo trapped in a haystack”.  All women are fair game to Norman (cf. the title of the trilogy).

At the same time, there’s a healthy sprinkling of comedy, with some very quotable lines.  Sarah, the egotistical wife, says, “I was so upset, I wrote to everybody!”.   Ruth, after trying unsuccessfully to coach Tom to make love to Annie, says, “I managed to load him alright, but I pointed him in the wrong direction.”  She opines of Tom, “You could say that he’s deep, but when you say that, it implies there’s something at the bottom.”  She also gets in a good jab at Norman; when he says he’s making small talk, she says “well, it’s not small enough”.

With all these strong emotions and humorous lines roiling about the stage, if this were a single play, it would be challenging enough.  But three plays?  Well, that’s pretty darn ambitious!  So, kudos to Plosive Productions and SevenThirty Productions for bringing The Norman Conquests to Ottawa audiences.  Have they succeeded in offering high quality theatre?  Based on Table Manners, I think so.

To begin with, the director, John P. Kelly, has assembled a superb cast.  Margo MacDonald as Sarah is a remarkably complex character – brittle, nasty, tightly wound and controlling yet soft and malleable when her right buttons are pushed.  Al Connors is a treat as Norman the amoral seducer who is, at the same time, wildly in love with the idea of love.  He doesn’t seem much of a prize, but he definitely knows how to manipulate women.  The look on his face each time he succeeds is priceless!  And this may be the finest comic role I’ve seen David Whiteley perform.  His Tom is a perfect English twit, thick as a brick but staying on this side of Monty Python caricature.  Michelle LeBlanc as Annie, Julie Le Gal as Ruth and Steve Martin as Reg round out this fine cast.

Under Kelly’s direction, the play clips along at a nice pace, with some lovely bits of physical business, particularly from Whiteley and Martin. The dining room set with its elegant furniture but mismatched artwork and a few signs of damp in the corners is evocative of an English country house running a bit to seed.  The set and lighting design, both courtesy of David Magladry, are in service of the play. Vanessa Imeson’s costumes enhance each character beautifully.

In short, a complete success.

Having seen Table Manners, I can hardly wait to see Living Together and Round and Round the Garden!  This is a theatrical treat not to be missed.

Table Manners is showing in rotation with the other two plays in The Norman Conquests – Living Together and Round and Round the Garden – at The Gladstone (910 Gladstone Ave.) until Oct.10, 2015.  It’s 2 hours with one intermission. Tickets run between approximately $17 – $30 and can be purchased here.