The highlight is a dinner that allows the simmering tensions to explode, despite initial promises from all parties that they will guarantee to maintain the peace.

Sarah and Annie and Norman and Ruth, and also Reg, who is married to Sarah, and Tom, who is inexplicably there, gather during one weekend in the dining room of Annie’s country house in Sussex, England.Sarah and Annie are desperately seeking love and attention, and Norman is right there to provide it. So what if Norman is married to Ruth, who is Annie’s sister? Such is the tangled web of Table Manners – the third of three interlocking plays known as The Norman Conquests – as will be seen later this month at essendon theatre company. All penned by Alan Ayckbourn, the prolific English playwright with a sublime talent for extracting truth and hilarity from miserable characters trapped in wretched relationships.

  I spoke with actor James Antonas about Norman and his conquests – both present and future.

 Can you describe your character Norman and his role in forwarding the story?

Yes I can, and thanks for asking. James Antonas, the character, is much like Norman whateverhislastnameis…charming, devil may care…um…bearded. The main thing to remember is that Norman is all of us…each and everyone of us…except maybe you…and that guy who sits in the cubicle next to you, you know the one, always eating Cheese & Onion chips at 10 in the morning like it’s an adequate breakfast supplement. Norman is a man in search of attention, of affection and with plenty of love to give. High spirits. Over dramatic lows. He just wants to make people happy, specifically women, but not in a sleazy way…well, it can be a bit sleazy…but at least he’s earnest…and sleazy. The play revolves around me, and rightly so, but it also revolves around the character of Norman, which is also a good thing as I’m playing him. He is the catalyst. He sets the whole weekend in motion and keeps it spinning on its axis as it comes, as it must, to its inevitable end, where, rather appropriately, Norman has the last word…actually, ‘Curtain’ is the last word of the play but it doesn’t get spoken…but we don’t have a curtain so maybe someone will whisper it offstage…dramatically.    
Can you talk a little about the Table Manners rehearsal process to date?

 I can indeed, however, instead of talking, I’ll use my fingers on this keyboard and write via my brain. Get a cast of six people together, varying sexes and ages, and you’re bound for trouble. Ego clashes, temper tantrums, inappropriate massages…the whole caboodle…and this play has been no exception. Everywhere one turns there is someone in tears, hysterics, conniptions, labour…it is a never ending cycle of self-absorption…an actor’s main characteristic. Sure, some will claim they’re ‘getting into character’ or ‘finding the truth’ but honestly…they are contemplating their most flattering angle and how they can get more stage time. Bless their cotton socks…we are a needy people…craving acceptance from disapproving parents, needing validation and critical praise from their public, wanting money from friends for tickets that were pre-booked, but once we’re on stage…God help us…it’s even more about us. But seriously, it’s been interesting from the get go. Doing the show in the round has made us all rethink how we work on stage, how we use our body and getting the right projection so four different sides of an audience can hear you muttering. Plus, having to create a family dynamic with complete strangers. Six characters, all with an existing relationship with each other that needs to be divulged in a manner of seconds of interacting with them. Are they brother and sister? Do they even like each other? Do they even love each other? It’s all key…and Tess has managed to bring that out of us, bit by bit, character by character.

While Ayckbourn has written fairly stock characters there is still a certain amount of emotional poignancy achieved between the warring partners. As an actor, how do you find this emotional truth amongst the comedy?

Um…by looking for it…it’s usually under the sofa cushions. I’m not sure emotional truth and comedy are as important as getting the characters right as they are written on the page. Once you’ve got that right, the interactions between each character should create those moments organically, otherwise moments might seem forced or straining for laughter. Norman is a lover…whether he’s successful or not is beside the point, but he’s a lover at heart. If I’m getting that right, then the rest should all fall into place…if it doesn’t…then I’ll have grown a beard for no reason…and my mother would be turning in her grave…if she were dead.

As an actor again, is your preference for the dramatic or comedic genre? Why?

 I’d say I’m still finding my feet in both genres. I know, I know…others will say ‘James, you fool, you are a born clown. A wit. You make us laugh until we stop, and then we think about what just happened and laugh again, but not as strongly as we did the first time, more a pleased chuckle, but the humour is still there. It’s always there James, don’t ever forget that.’ And my girlfriend is always telling me I’m over-dramatic…so maybe I can reside in both worlds…like that guy in Quantum Leap or Goodnight, Sweetheart…gee, they were great shows. But I enjoy making people laugh and I enjoy making people…usually out of clay.

What is your next project?  

Other than my clay people? There’s nothing on the horizon at the moment…maybe a few sunsets…some ships passing…definitely a seagull or two…but no theatrical projects per se. But you can’t keep a good man down…well, you can…a couple of baseball bats and some electrical tape…but it’s probably harder to keep a strong man down…that’s a better saying, but less applicable to me as I’m not too strong…although my Dad used to have a nice thick moustache that made him look a strong man when he was in his Speedos…but I’ve digressed. In short…I need work…gimme, gimme, gimme.
essendon theatre company is proud to present Table Manners by Alan Ayckbourn as directed by Tess Maurici Ryan.
Theatre: Bradshaw Street Community Hall Bradshaw Street (off Buckley Street) West Essendon Melways 28B3
Performances: November 25th,26th,27th @8:00pm, November 28th Sunday @2:00pm Matinee, December 2nd,3rd,4th @8:00pm
Prices: All Evening Performances $15 per ticket All Matinee Performances $12. per ticket
Bookings: Eileen – 9330 4808 or [email protected]