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The Norman Conquests review at Chichester Festival Theatre – ‘stunningly acted vintage Ayckbourn’

Jemima Rooper in The Norman Conquests at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan Jemima Rooper in The Norman Conquests at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Alan Ayckbourn’s earliest theatrical trilogy The Norman Conquests premiered at Scarborough in 1973 before becoming a long-running West End success. It remains a theatrically audacious wonder.

It is now revived at Chichester as the perfect festival event. While a commercial audience may not have the patience, finances or inclination to watch the same events of a July weekend being played out in three different, inter-related plays that feature the same set of six characters, seeing them back-to-back in Blanche McIntyre‘s artfully orchestrated new production is to enjoy a profusion of reverberating comic revelations and dramatic tensions.

In one play we see a character bring a rubbish bin into one room; in another, we see him collecting it minutes earlier from next door. The pay-off is priceless as the audience recognises a moment it has been previously witnessed on the other side of the door.

But there’s also an accumulating sadness to the trilogy’s portrait of marital dysfunction and loneliness as single Annie, who acts as carer to an unseen, bed-bound mother, plots a weekend getaway with the lothario husband of her sister, who also can’t stop himself from attempting to seduce their brother’s controlling wife.

The pleasure (as well as the discomfort) of watching it all unravel comes from Ayckbourn’s brilliance in fine-tuning the time zones between each play, as the first scene in each play is played out at half-an-hour intervals early on Saturday evening, while the second acts scramble the chronology in which each plays tells its story.

It requires infinite precision in pacing and performance, with every time shift and giving each character more depth and backstory. McIntyre’s meticulously cast company lends it both serious weight and an effortless lightness of touch that captures and amplifies its competing tensions.

Jemima Rooper‘s anxious, lonely Annie is a study in independence and yet vulnerable neediness; she’s crying out for love. John Hollingworth’s tender portrait of a vet who is unable to express his feelings fully is painfully funny and true.

So Annie finds solace in the arms (and on the lounge rug) with Trystan Gravelle’s Norman, an assistant librarian who is a bit of a shaggy dog but has a puppyish ability to attract women, including Sarah Hadland as his other sister-in-law, the uptight Sarah. She, in turn, is married to Jonathan Broadbent’s estate agent Reg, a relationship founded on mutual hostility and anger. Completing the sextet is Norman’s long-suffering wife Ruth, to whom Hattie Ladbury brings an Anna Chancellor-like glamour and complexity.

In a significantly reconfigured auditorium that puts the audience in the complete round, Simon Higlett’s ingenious sets provide an immersive environment for each play, ranging from dining room and lounge to a summer garden.

Forty-four years on from their premiere, Ayckbourn’s plays are both of their time yet utterly timeless in their comedic value and understanding of human nature.

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Exhilarating early vintage Ayckbourn is stunningly acted