If your family is anything like mine, you're likely well aware that a family gathering extends far beyond the mere duration of the visit itself. The lead-up involves frenzied pre-meetup prep sessions: strategising how to ensure Mom remains unaware of this, preventing Dad from uttering that, and meticulously orchestrating seating arrangements to avoid the unfortunate proximity of our rather outspoken, and regrettably racist, uncle. And then, of course, there's the essential post-gathering round-robin of winding down - a blend of therapeutic discussions and shared commiseration, where we reflect on the common genetic makeup that seems to correlate with a notable absence of sound mental equilibrium. Frankly, the effort invested is substantial, and frequently, it feels like an exercise in futility, given that history is destined to repeat itself upon our next rendezvous. Pymble Players latest production of Alan Ayckbourn's "Table Manners" struck a chord that resonated with the very essence of my familial experiences.
"Table Manners" serves as the inaugural piece within a trilogy crafted by Ayckbourn. Each of these plays revolves around the dynamics of a consistent ensemble of six characters, all intimately intertwined by the threads of a shared weekend sojourn at the family's countryside home. In this narrative, Annie, baby of the family, entrusts the care of her unseen, ailing mother to her brother and sister-in-law. Meanwhile, Annie herself seeks solace in a well-deserved weekend getaway—although the true nature of her intentions is later revealed to be a clandestine rendezvous with her brother-in-law, Norman. What unfolds is a tumultuous rollercoaster ride of emotions, an experience uniquely reserved for a family that possesses an uncanny familiarity that teeters on the edge of loathing.
The ensemble of six actors effortlessly embodies the complex tapestry of a dysfunctional family unit. Heather Pitt shines in the role of Sarah, oscillating between hilariously high-strung moments of obsessive micromanagement and feverish outbursts. Portraying her long-suffering husband Reg is Baz Evans, who deftly captures an aura of charming detachment that skillfully bypasses unlikeable.
Samantha Lemon, in her portrayal of Annie, infuses the character with palpable enthusiasm, and her balance of resigned loneliness and inflamed frustration brought the character to life. Greg Thornton takes on the role of Tom, Annie's well-intentioned yet clueless would-be-boyfriend. Thornton's portrayal exudes a captivating air of charming vagueness that immediately captivates the audience.
Justin Corcoran treads the fine line between a lovable rogue and an obnoxious buffoon in his portrayal of the charismatic Lothario, Norman. Diane Howden, as Ruth, Norman's undemonstrative wife, juxtaposes an air of pragmatism with just the right touch of heart. This ensemble worked together with ease, weaving together the intricate fabric of the play's comedic and dramatic elements to deliver an unforgettable performance.
Under the leadership of director Gavin Critchely, the exceptional cast and crew has created a small yet immersive portal into a world that feels both familiar and ageless. The inviting ambiance of the set, undeniably reminiscent of a quintessential "mother's house," instantly resonates with anyone who lays eyes upon it, presents a charming backdrop to the rollicking exploration of familial discord that graces its stage.
I walked into this production knowing nothing of the story, and left having laughed my way through it. I can only hope that this team reunites to present this story through the remaining two plays Ayckbourn's “Norman Conquests”. I give this play 3.5 lettuce leaves out of 5.