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Review of ‘Round and Round the Garden’

Review by Peter Yolland.

Round and Round the Garden forms part of the trilogy of the Norman Conquests plays written in 1973 by Alan Ayckbourn.  ‘Round and Round the Garden’, takes place in the garden. ‘Table  Manners’ is set in the dining room and ‘Living Together’ in the living room,

Each play is self-contained and BLT performed Table Manners in 2012. This production was performed at Hever Castle in August 2019 as a First Knight production rather than by BLT.

The six characters are, namely, Norman, his wife Ruth, her brother Reg and his wife Sarah, Ruth’s sister Annie, and Tom, a local vet. A seventh unseen and unheard character is in the house, upstairs: the bedridden mother of Reg, Ruth and Annie.

The storyline revolves around Annie, who lives in the country taking care of her demanding mother and has decided that she needs a weekend away. Her brother Reg and his wife Sarah have agreed to come and take care of mother while Annie goes on her break away. However, Annie is secretly planning to meet up with her sister Ruth’s charming, rakish husband Norman for an illicit weekend together. Their careful planning starts to go wrong when Norman shows up at the house rather than at the agreed rendezvous. Annie has second thoughts on going away with Norman and her dilemma is heightened by Tom a local vet who holds a candle for her but does not have the nerve to tell her this. Tom uses the excuse of treating their family cat as an excuse to be with her. Norman has to stay there overnight in Annie’s home now. As a consequence, over the next few days he does his best to sleep with Annie and in a drunken moment tries to seduce Sarah. Sarah contacts Ruth to advise on what is happening and Ruth joins the family gathering. As the play progresses Norman’s simple wish of keeping all the women in his life happy, causes issues with their relationship with him and the others. This resulted in arguments and the characters having differing degrees of understanding about what’s actually happening. The play ends with the car crash between the respective married couples trying to leave resulting in Norman having one last chance with Annie.

Having seen the play at Hever, I was intrigued to see how the size of the BLT stage would lend itself to the setting. In my opinion, I felt that Dan Armour and team did well in transferring from the large area to BLT’s smaller stage. The greenery supplied by Coolings filled the stage and the auditorium. Making it feel more intimate and that we were also in the garden watching what was happening.

Lighting by Colin Martin helped show the passage of time over the weekend. The sound and the pre-show recordings by Dave Jones drew me back to the period the play was set in. As did the costumes and hairstyles created by Pauline Armour and Pauline Pead.

Bruce Wallace’s Reg, the slightly henpecked husband of Sarah, cleverly provided us with several funny moments, to lighten the friction between the other characters. An example being the ball game in the second half.

Emma Sweeney fully encapsulated the caustic overbearing Sarah who manages not to fall for Norman’s charms and to boss Reg around and possibly having her own reasons for contacting Ruth.

Alison Green clearly showed Ruth’s acceptance of Norman for the pathetic, unfaithful letch he is and shared her thoughts with anyone who listened. Her scene with Tom, who entirely misinterpreted Ruth’s intentions was a delight. Andrew Newbon’s characterisation of Tom, the nervy vet, clearly made the audience want Tom to have the courage of his convictions. Several of his entrances broke the fourth wall and he had to contend with ad lib cat sounds from the audience when looking for the errant family pet stuck up a tree.

Bethan Boxall’s Annie was the embodiment of a family member left at home to care for the elderly parent wanting to have some excitement or difference in her life to break from the drudgery of caring. She allowed the audience to be sympathetic to her plight and we wanted her to be happier in her life.

Howie Ripley’s Norman, showed us the charming lover yet serially unfaithful and somewhat pathetic husband that he was. A difficult person to warm to and could only be loved by a Ruth of that time. I ended up not liking Norman but understood why he made his wife so uncomfortable for himself and the other people in his life. This resulted from the writing, the direction and Howie’s portrayal of him.

The direction by Pauline and Dan Armour clearly showed with their ability to produce the same play on two different sized stages. This, in some ways, helped it become more intimate, allowing the many two-person scenes to bring the story to life for the audience. Their direction of the actors and attention to detail allowed us to be transported back in time. The audience reacted warmly to their first January main house show and perhaps some like me wanted to know what was going on in the house and would it be another wait of eight years to find out?

So, to finish, thank you to all involved in this show in brightening up a dull January evening with this polished production.