REVIEW: The Norman Conquests, Chichester Festival Theatre, until October 28.

The Norman Conquests. Pic by Manuel Harlan
The Norman Conquests. Pic by Manuel Harlan

Three Chekhovs in one day a couple of years ago was an increasing slog. The three Ayckbourns which make up The Norman Conquests offer steadily-growing delight.

Over three different plays, unfurling simultaneously, entrances and exits matching between each, we catch six characters as they repel, attract and variously wind up each other over a family weekend fraught with trauma at every turn.

The result – set in dining room, living room and garden – is hilarious, beautifully cast, beautifully performed and beautifully directed by Blanche McIntyre.

The CFT is being mildly disingenuous to suggest you can watch just one and leave it there. The growing cleverness of the day is that so many of the lines resonate because of what we have just seen elsewhere in one of the trilogy’s other locations.

Watch just one, and of course, you will have a good evening; watch all three and you really will get the six characters in the full three dimensions.

Tuesday gave us successively Table Manners, Living Together and Round And Round The Garden, a sequence which seemed perfectly logical. But it would be fascinating to erase all memory and rewatch in a different order.

But however you watch them, if you watch all three, you will have the huge pleasure of switching allegiances and sympathies as the characters variously reveal their foibles – thanks to a cast which works quite brilliantly together

Trystan Gravelle as Norman, Hattie Ladbury as Ruth, Jemima Rooper as Annie, John Hollingworth as Tom, Sarah Hadland as Sarah and Jonathan Broadbent as Reg each have their moments as the focus switches between them – and as their characters reveal their many facets, so the pleasure deepens.

The painfully-literal nice-but-dim Tom is the perfect foil for the super-complex cynical womaniser Norman; meanwhile the increasingly-uptight Sarah is warring with the deeply-dull Reg as left-behind Annie dreams of something better. Ruth, probably the most striking of the lot, reveals a strange mix of passion and forbearance.

And yet, thanks to the alternating perspectives, each of the characters is so much more than this, their longings repeatedly unpicked, their weaknesses and their idiocies sharply observed while the unseen matriarch, Mrs Mainwaring-like, hovers unseen upstairs.

There are terrific set pieces, from the dinner table conversation from hell to Tom’s attempt at seduction; but also there are plenty of home truths, Ayckbourn time and time again hitting home with a precision as fine as his wit.

And to think we get to share the stage with them all, the CFT’s first-ever in-the-round seating offering yet another perspective on Ayckbourn’s ever-changing kaleidoscope of family disarray.

Phil Hewitt