A Comedic Threesome... Oops!

This is the trilogy of plays that Sir Alan Ayckbourn wrote back in 1973. The original London cast included a bunch of relative unknowns (including Michael Gambon, Felicity Kendal, Penelope Wilton and Penelope Keith) with Tom Courtenay as ‘conquering’ Norman, the libidinous assistant librarian at the plays’ epicentre. The trilogy was a huge hit and when Richard Briers saw it, he asked Ms Kendal if she’d think about joining a new television project he was involved with, aka The Good Life.

The sheer daring of the construction of these three plays is, all these years on, still as amazing as it must have been back then. Table Manners, Living Together and Round and Round the Garden (each a little over two hours) depict the same weekend, but each from a different vantage point — the dining room, the sitting room and the garden. Ayckbourn constructs them like a jigsaw, so that an exit in one play becomes the entrance in another.

The unfortunate characters are all assembled, whodunit- style, at a weekend gathering in a vicarage in Sussex. This new production is pitch perfect. The acting is flawless, the orchestration of the action seamless, and the shows are staged in the round with a bank of extra seating installed at the rear of the stage.

The chaos is caused by Norman, who attempts to seduce his lonely sister-in-law Annie, his brother-in-law’s uptight wife Sarah, and even his own semi- detached spouse, Ruth. Coming and going throughout each play is the nice but terribly dim vet Tom (John Hollingworth), whose vocabulary is mostly ‘um’.

In despair of Tom ever proposing to her, Annie (Jemima Rooper) agrees to a dirty weekend in East Grinstead with Norman. The idea is quickly quashed by her ghastly, brittle sister-in-law Sarah, who lives in marital hell with the nerdy Reg – Sarah Hadland and Jonathan Broadbent both performing flawlessly.

At the centre of it all, rising star Trystan Gravelle gives a fabulous performance as hairy Norman, a ‘gigolo trapped inside a haystack’ as he calls himself, whose success with women is inexplicable, even to himself. Ayckbourn exposes in these plays a deeply pessimistic view of the pursuit of human happiness; and director Blanche McIntyre milks every last drop of sadness while conjuring up exhausting waves of laughter.

Which is the best of the trilogy? Impossible to say. But the plays’ daring, depth and sheer comic dazzle is greatly enriched by seeing all three as a box set.  Until 28 October at the Chichester Festival Theatre: 01243-781312, www.cft.org.uk