In The Norman Conquests, a small group of family and acquaintances struggle with the trials and tribulations of a family life, particularly marital mishaps. The title alludes to the Normans trouncing the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but the conquests in this well-honed production are of the romantic sort propagated by middle-class Norman (Andrew Vaught).
All three of Alan Ayckbourn's Conquest plays involve the same six characters, the same home and the same weekend, and one can see the plays in any order. I saw Table Manners, and as the play begins, Annie (Natalie Boyd) greets Sarah (Jennifer Pagan), who is arriving for the weekend with husband Reggie (Ricky Graham), who is Annie's brother. Everyone speaks colloquial English with a sprinkling of phrases like "a bit of heavy going" or "a trifle ponderous."
Annie intends to vacation in East Grinstead, which apparently isn't a well-regarded destination, but she doesn't plan to go alone. She recently had a fling with Norman — while his wife Ruth (Aimee Hayes) was upstairs — and she's angling for Norman to go on vacation with her.
Vaught captures Norman's exasperating but charming duality. Graham shines as Reggie, and the entire cast creates clearly defined and delightfully wacky individuals.
The closest Manners approaches poignance is the frustrated romance between Tom (James Bartelle) and Annie. Tom is too shy to proclaim his love for her, and in spite of many comic moments, it's finally his shyness that pushes Annie into Norman's arms.
Ayckbourn's work is full of wit, wordplay and, sometimes, Marx Brothers-like nonsense. When Sarah tries to arrange a pleasant family dinner, the complications about how to alternate men and women at the table become mind-boggling. A furious argument breaks out about determining a woman's womanliness, based on whether or not she has had children.
And who is on hand to soothe the woman who is most upset at any particular moment? Norman the conqueror, of course.
Martin Andrew's simple, effective set consists of an octagonal dining room with audience on all sides. Cecile Casey Covert designed the attractive costumes. Director Damon W. Arrington amassed a remarkable cast and brought out the many levels of comedy in this enjoyable play. — Dalt Wonk
Thru June 5
The Norman Conquests: Table Manners
8 p.m. Friday, June 3; 11 a.m. Sunday, June 5
Southern Rep, The Shops at Canal Place, 365 Canal St., 522-6545; www.southernrep.com
Tickets $35 Friday, $29 Sunday