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We wanted to be amused this year, so Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests was chosen for our New Year play reading. Set in a dilapidated country house in the South East, each play deals with the same events from a Saturday evening in summer until the following Monday morning. Each play takes place in a different area of the house; each stands alone and can be enjoyed in any order. If you want to get the full picture of this mad weekend, however, you need to see all three. As we had nearly all managed to read Table Manners despite the Christmas and New Year festivities, we elected to give it an airing.
Annie, who single-handedly cares for her bed-ridden mother, has asked her brother Reg and his wife Sarah to give her a weekend off so that she can take a short break. The play opens with Sarah trying to find out from Annie if she is being accompanied by the local vet, Tom, who everyone hopes will eventually get round to marrying her, (and is at this moment trying to extricate Annie’s cat from a tree so that he can examine its foot.) But Annie eventually confesses, to Sarah’s dismay, that it is, in fact, her brother-in-law Norman who asked her to come away with him for a night of passion following a Christmas romp on the living room rug. (Norman is even now, in another play, Round and Round the Garden, showing Reg his new pyjamas and telling him about his forthcoming librarians’ conference in East Grinstead). But the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, and Sarah insists that Annie forgoes her dirty weekend. She and Reg will look after Mother and Annie will put her feet up here, in her own home. To complicate matters further, Sarah phones Ruth, Norman’s wife, and summons her to the house. And that, in essence, is the plot: the interactions of six people who find it very difficult to get along with each other, from that moment on Saturday evening until they leave (or try to) on Monday morning.
The set piece of Table Manners is the dinner on Sunday evening in Act 2 Scene 1, when Sarah attempts to get the family members and Tom to be civil to each other round a perfectly set dining table while Annie slaves in the kitchen, trying to produce something for them to eat from a few tins and assorted lettuce leaves. Tom ends up on a very low seat while the irrepressible Norman – who has spent the weekend placating Annie, chatting up Sarah, (and is about to spend the night cavorting on the infamous sitting room rug with his wife, but in another play) – teases him about his lowly status at every conceivable opportunity. The original 1970’s stellar cast was memorably hilarious in this scene, and our group gave an excellent account of it, and of the entire play. Although not Alan Ayckbourn’s funniest achievement, there is a darker side to The Norman Conquests which renders it much more satisfying.
We began our evening, the first of 2013, by thanking Anne, our regular hostess, and Tessa, who orders and collects the books from the library, for making our book circle evenings so pleasant. Next month we shall be discussing Virginia Woolf’s Orlando on February 14.
Withiel Book Circle – reading list
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