Review: Table Manners

Theatre West Van, the North Shore’s longest operating drama group, presents the final piece of its 2008/09 season, Table Manners at the Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver through May 2nd, 2009. And while it was a very rocky start for the first half of act one, the actors, due in no small part to Kevin Scott’s turn as Norman, finally found their groove in scene two resulting in an enjoyable evening of one of the three pieces from Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests.

For those that might have read previous reviews here at GayVancouver.Net (Gay Vancouver Online), I have some very fond memories of The Norman Conquests as one of the first plays that I saw as a young adult and what originally got me hooked on live theatre. With those memories firmly in place, I must admit to some apprehension as I took my seat in the beautiful studio theatre at the Kay Meek Centre. Will the show live up to the expectations of my memories? Are my fond memories of The Norman Conquests faulty due to time? Short answers: yes and no.

Table Manners is actually the first part of the Ayckbourn Norman Conquests trilogy which also includes Living Together and Round and Round the Garden. All are full-length plays that take place in different parts of Annie’s (Sarah Arnold) country house in the same time frame, with the same characters. And while all three plays are connected by character, time and location they are also stand-alone pieces that do not necessarily rely on each other to tell the story. But knowing that Table Manners is part of the trilogy does help enjoy the show just that little bit more as you imagine, assuming you haven’t seen the other two plays, what is going on in the other parts of the house as the characters exit the dining room.

Sarah (Rosalyn Winther) and Reg (Simon Drake) have agreed to a weekend stay at Annie’s house to look after their ailing mother and to give Annie a much needed rest. But what Sarah and Reg don’t realize is that rather drab Annie is not going away by herself or with her on-again-off-again suitor Tom (Thomas Saunders). As the title suggests, this first of the trilogy all takes place in Annie’s dining room complete with two dinners and two breakfasts filled with “12 bowls of cornflakes” and a single head of wilted lettuce that must be shared over two meals.

Of course playwright Ayckbourn provides us with his signature take on miserable middle-class relationships with its requisite misunderstandings, deceptions and secrets, so I shall not provide any more clues to the actual story so as not to spoil the surprise. Suffice to say though the title of the trilogy, rather than the title of this singular piece, provides the greatest clue of them all.

As I alluded to at the beginning of my review here opening night jitters appear to have gotten the best of Arnold and Winther as it is not until the second scene, with the gradual addition of the rest of the company that the two actresses start to feel a bit more comfortable.

Thomas Saunders and Simon Drake both do a good turn as the the rather dull and oblivious Tom and the brow-beaten Reg respectively but like Winther and Arnold it did take some time for their characters to fully come alive. Heather Evens as Ruth gives her character just the right amount of edge and Director Alison Jopson goes out of her way to ensure Evens is provided with every possible moment to look at her reflection. Perhaps in an effort to contemporize the piece (it was written in 1973 afterall), Jepson has given Ruth a Blackberry but to be honest it did seem a little incongruent.

There is much riding on the character Norman and while the title of this single play does not reveal it, he really is the central character to the trilogy. Fortunately for us Kevin Scott does a spectacular job with Norman. Just the right amoung of boorish charm coupled with a infectual joie de vivre, Scott is definitely the glue that holds this show together. The other actors obviously feed off Scott’s energy on stage and the audience can definitely feel the roller coaster, from time to time, as Scott leaves the stage and comes back.

Bill Elliott’s set design is functional although we were disappointed that some of the rather lovely antique set pieces were simply window dressing. The decision to add a player piano to Annie’s dining room should have resulted in it being used even if it was during the set changes.

With a few performances under their belt now hopefully the cast has gotten used to being in front of an audience. Arnold and Winther have a huge responsibility here to set the tone and engage the audience from the first curtain. Let’s hope the opening night nerves are a thing of the past.

Finally, as the ultimate litmus test is the show worthy of a trip across the bridge? Absolutely. With its rather inexpensive ticket prices, Theatre West Van’s Table Manners would be a good end to perhaps a night at one of West Vancouver’s nicer dining establishments meaning you can have a full night out without breaking the bank.

Table Manners continues at the Studio Theatre at the Kay Meek Centre through May 2nd. Call 604.913.3634 or purchase online.

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