When Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests was first performed, one audience member famously laughed so hard that that she lost her false teeth in the theatre. Sleepless Production’s rendition of his trilogy’s second installment, Living Together, also delivers its fair share of laughter. But more impressively, it also manages to convey an air of incipient gloom that lurks beneath the play’s hilarity, and grounds its story of domestic discord. In the hands of a competent student cast, these seemingly obverse dramatic impulses come together with surprising ease to form what has been so fittingly termed a ‘tragedy with jokes’.
Set in a living room over the space of a weekend, Living Together charts the misadventures of in-laws who have problems getting along, to say the very least. Trouble starts brewing when Annie (Lizzy Mansfield), grudging caregiver of her elderly mother (Rebecca Hamilton), decides to call off a weekend rendezvous with Norman (Frederick Bowerman), the incorrigibly libidinous librarian married to her sister Ruth (Mary Higgins). Since Annie has already summoned her brother Reg (James Aldred) and his uptight wife Sarah (Sarah Mathews) to mind the house, the lot now find themselves enduring a pseudo-Christmas gathering of farcical proportions. Meanwhile Annie’s boyfriend Tom (James Watson) potters around the house good-naturedly if rather dimly, oblivious to the sexual tension seething grimly around him.
To preserve the totality of Ayckbourn’s trilogy— where the same story is explored from three different locations in the house— co-directors Griffith Rees and Laura Cull employ an ingenious set with an offstage garden and dining room in tow. This allows them to rework elements of the trilogy into the space of a single play— ambient chatter, for instance, wafts in from the dining room on occasion, indicating that drama from some other segment of the trilogy is unfolding beyond earshot. At another point, a spat in the dining room boils over so explosively that it spills into our line of vision. The effect is to create a neat and complete little world beyond the play, that characters can drift in and out of and convincingly inhabit.
The cast have used improvisation techniques to better flesh out their characters, and the extra effort shows all round. Bowerman, in particular, plays a wonderfully multivalent Norman— by turns bullying, charming and exasperatingly needy. Meanwhile, Mathews stands out as the high-strung Sarah, who is so intent on micro-managing the family weekend that one can’t help but suspect a keen edge of vulnerability to her actions. Watson was another crowd favourite, comfortably channeling the bumbling Tom in every way from his brightly misguided conversations, to his amiable but kickable-dog demeanour.
This isn’t to say that the play has no problems. Pacing was sometimes too sluggish, so that Ayckbourn’s dark humour lacked the quickfire rapidity it could have had. At other moments, the clunky transition between characters’ lines caused what burgeoning dramatic tension there was to wilt rather unceremoniously. Despite these issues, however, Sleepless Productions still does a remarkably good job of capturing the tired sadness that lies at the heart of Ayckbourn’s banter. It is said that Ayckbourn often repeats a line he once overheard from a woman leaving his Scarborough theatre: ‘if I’d known what I was laughing at I’d never have started laughing at all.’ The same sentiment certainly hits us hard at times— when we see Aldred defeated in his attempt to salvage the weekend with a home-made board game, for instance, or in one particularly touching scene where Bowerman and Higgins finally, and inevitably, confront the mundane tragedy that is the wearing down of old love. These are the moments when the play’s creative vision really shines through— when the thin veil of hilarity lifts for a moment, and we catch a small glimpse of the emotional chasms that lie between intimate people.
Tjoa Shze Hui