Table Manners

Sarah: Sue Clarke
Annie: Karina Khokhar
Reg: Keith Dunn
Tom: Tom Collins
Norman: Tony Wright-Jones
Ruth: Caroline Shufflebotham

Alan Ayckbourn is regarded as one of Britain’s foremost playwrights and had already written 16 highly successful plays by the time he wrote his trilogy, The Norman Conquests. These three plays were written simultaneously and although it was important that all three plays stood alone, they also had to work together, making sense if they are seen one after the other.

Whilst all the plays work as individual entities, their consanguinity as a trilogy must not be forgotten as it is essential for the actors to know the purpose of their entrances and exits. So, when Reg leaves the room to collect ‘something’ from the room where Norman is talking to Annie, returning with a wastepaper basket, it is important to remember that that scene actually
appears in one of the other plays. It is equally important to remember that Ayckbourn writes about ‘real’ people in real situations and the humour comes from the recognition of ourselves in the characters.  It is essential, therefore, that the actors ‘play it straight’. Any sense of forced characterisation or farce in Ayckbourn plays can leave them feeling more like pantomime and less like comedy and we are left laughing at ridiculous characters rather than laughing with people we understand and with whom we empathise.

Sadly, with the recent BLT production of Table Manners, these points seem to have been forgotten. Frequently; actors would leave the stage from one exit only to reappear through a different door for no reason. Equally frustratingly, all but one of the first entrances of every character was masked by another actor. If characters are entering from a doorway positioned upstage of the furniture, the director must ensure that characters on stage are well away from the door and furniture when someone enters. The first entrance of any actor is, arguably, the most important and if every first entrance is masked it is almost impossible for the actor/actress to make a meaningful first impression on the audience.

In the interests of fairness, I am taking the unusual step in a review of not writing about any of the individual actors in this production. Suffice to say, I felt that no one had understood the realism required nor the subtlety of their characters. At times, I felt as though I was watching impersonations of John Cleese mixed with Leonard Rossiter and Frankie Howerd or Hyacinth Bucket crossed with Les Dawson! I just didn’t believe in or empathise with any of the characters on stage and, whilst the audience laughed, I felt the laughter was because the comedy was forced and not flowing with subtlety. Indeed, some of the funniest lines were rushed to such an extent that they lost any humour.
To mis-quote the Italian playwright, Luigi Pirandello: this cast were ‘Six caricatures in search of a play!’ Ayckbourn summed up his vision of the way to perform his plays in his own correspondence, saying: “The art of playing The Norman Conquests is to take them very seriously yet never too solemnly; vulnerably but never sentimentally and with a true love for the characters without for a moment losing sight of their defects and shortcomings.”

The set was the one redeeming feature of this production. The play is set in the 1970s, in a former Victorian vicarage and I thought the room we were presented with worked very well.

There was a nicely-judged juxtaposition between the Victorian and the 70s decor and I particularly liked the wallpaper! The bay window was well designed and the gravel drive that had been laid outside was a nice effect: the crunching of shoes added a certain depth to the behind scenes area. At times, I felt the birdsong sound effect was a little intrusive but on the whole, the lighting and sound added a lot to the appearance of the piece.
Sadly, this whole production left me nonplussed and disappointed which is a great shame. Table Manners is a funny play and the audience did laugh but I felt that, in this production, there was no subtlety, no pathos and no understanding of the characters or the writing. .

– Steve Williams

Steve Williams is the author of Exodus, a crime novel that features his detective creation, Rhys Davies. It is currently available from www.amazon.co.uk. For more info on Steve and his work, visit: www.stevewilliamsauthor.co.uk