Frinton Summer Theatre: Table manners

Table Manners: Alan Ayckbourn, Frinton Summer Theatre

Table Manners: Alan Ayckbourn, Frinton Summer Theatre

There was a time in the seventies when it seemed that every other play in the West End was an Alan Ayckbourn comedy. Table Manners, revived at Frinton in a sparklingly funny Edward Max production, was one of five Ayckbourn plays running in London in 1974.

That number was boosted because three were a trilogy under the collective title The Norman Conquests. They deal with the same six people - family, in-laws and a friend - miserably trapped in their dysfunctional suburban relationships.

The three stand-alone plays have the six together for a dreadful family weekend. The first - Table Manners, Frinton's offering - sees it from the dining room, the second from the living room and the third is set in the garden.


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Ayckbourn is so prolific that familiarity, sadly, can breed aloofness. He is, it shouldn't be forgotten, a supreme theatre craftsman. He writes very funny lines, and is the master of set piece scenes, full of growing absurd momentum and hysteria. Not only that, he digs out uncomfortable home truths about social behaviour which many in his middle-class audiences should recognise as hitting the bulls-eye.

The character we side with and would love to see matched up, is Annie (Nellie Harker, once again in this season, extraordinarily good). She's living alone in the family home looking after her cantankerous, bedridden mother.

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She'd love Tom, (Chris Porter) to take her in his arms and change her world. He, however, is a dullard of a vet, more interested in a stray cat's septic paw. This is why she's planned a dirty weekend, now aborted, with Norman, her libidinous brother-in-law (Sean McLevy). Norman, forever after conquests, goes about telling women, including his disinterested wife, Ruth (Jane Millman) that he only wants to make them happy.

To cap it all, there's Annie's controlling, but permanently overwrought sister-in-law, Sarah (Kerry Owen), prudish, seething, and forever on the brink of getting the emotional shakes when things don't go her way.

Kerry Owen does hyper so well she'd turn a rock into a jelly, though her wittily inert husband Reg (a very funny Harry Gostelow) manages for most the time to survive by sliding in undermining smart remarks, and occasionally bellowing “Shut Up!”

This is a fun night out, the high points of which are the set piece meals, especially the wonderfully disastrous family dinner. They shout, speak across each other, fight, throw things, or just deride the meagre contents of Annie's fridge. Ah well, that's happy families for you.

Ivan Howlett

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