Table Manners (spoiler, the characters didn’t have any!) is the first in Alan Ayckbourn’s 1973 trilogy of witty plays entitled The Norman Conquests. Taking place within a single dysfunctional family weekend, Table Manners unfolds in the dining room, with the other two plays in the trilogy, Living Together and Round and Round the Garden illustrating the same weekend, instead only depicting the events in the living room and the garden respectively.
Although the trilogy can be watched in any order as standalone plays, they intersect, with conversations and locations referenced in one play appearing in another. Table Manners reveals just a third of the story, with the complete context of this family weekend revealed through delving into the world of the remainder of the trilogy.
The Crescent Theatre’s take on the play evidently took inspiration from the 2008 Old Vic production of The Norman Conquests – immediately centring the titular dining table by using a circular ‘in the round’ staging with the audience positioned on all sides. This production design really paid off; the show becomes uniquely tailored to wherever an individual chooses to sit, immersing them fully in the day-to-day melodramatics unfolding on stage. Whilst inevitably leaving some audience members staring at the backs of the cast’s heads at some points, this staging concept was a resounding success in that it broke down the fourth wall somewhat and created a more intimate atmosphere appropriate to the subject matter.
Director Stewart Snape highlights Ayckbourn’s self-effacing description of his own works as “tragedies with jokes”, noting that “perhaps the tragedy stems from the characters’ love lives […] everybody seems to be longing to love and be loved.” Despite this, the pathos of tragedy was somewhat lacking; some line deliveries were shrill and hysterical to the point of being incomprehensible, perhaps sacrificing the tragic element in favour of the comic.
Nonetheless, the physical comedy was strong – in particular from Reg (Colin Simmonds), whose performance as doting brother, put-upon husband, and absent father was one of the highlights of the show. Kate Owen as Sarah was a real anchoring point for the cast, too, as the character evolves from an overbearing and irritatingly put-together sister-in-law to a desperate woman on the edge of a sordid affair. Owen’s performance really highlighted Sarah’s vulnerability as her facade of civilisation – manifesting itself in cutlery arrangements – crumbles in the face of Norman’s advances. Norman (Tom Lowde) comes across rather more as an unsubtle lothario, an incongruous and bathotic man best summarised in the line; “Yes, I love you too Norman, but please leave me alone.” At times Lowde’s performance felt rather exaggerated, perhaps losing a little of the character’s suave charisma – but overall brought flair and colour to every scene he popped up to cause chaos in.
Overall, The Crescent Theatre’s production of Table Manners took a lighthearted – if somewhat surface-level – approach to Ayckbourn’s text that was undeniably entertaining. The production value was very strong, too, particularly in the closing moments of the show as Norman makes yet another move on an unstable woman, we hear the strains of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get It On’ – another jab at the futility of our anti-hero’s fleeting affections.