BBC Radio 7, 26 April 2009
The third installment in the trilogy filled in the gaps the other two plays had omitted: we learned more about Norman's (Robin Herford's) planned dirty weekend with Annie (Diane Bull); how Norman tries to seduce Sarah (Tessa Peake-Jones); and what happens on the final Monday when Norman's car breaks down, forcing everyone to stay another night at Annie's house. This turns out to be a ruse, so that Norman can pursue his sexual conquests of Annie and Sarah. However all three women - Sarah, Annie and his wife Ruth - have had enough of him; they return to the house leaving him alone with his fantasies in the garden.
Round and Round the Garden focuses once again on middle-class angst: the characters' reluctance to talk about sex; their reluctance to contemplate unpleasant aspects of their loves; and their fondness for banal chatter to cover up rather than express their true feelings. Reg (Simon Jones) is locked in a sterile marriage to Sarah, but rather than trying to resolve it, he devotes his energies to creating board-games that no one really wants to play. By contrast Norman tries to have his cake and eat it; not only remaining 'happily' married (in his view, at least) but also enjoying full licence to seduce other women at the same time. However Ayckbourn shows at the end of Round and Round the Garden how morally bankrupt Norman has become; to him women are nothing more than objects designed to prove that "this boy [i.e. Norman himself] can do no wrong." It's hardly surprising that everyone shuns him; this is what he deserves.
Ayckbourn also shows how the characters cannot control their respective destinies: Norman and Sarah cannot elope; Sarah's plans to organize the household in their absence go badly awry; Reg cannot replicate Norman's sexual antics due to varicose veins. They can only try to make the best of their circumstances - even if that means sacrificing their hopes and dreams. This is particularly true of Annie, whose future consists of looking after her bedridden mother while enjoying a lifelong partnership with Tom (Jon Strickland).
Listening to The Norman Conquests in its entirety, I have to say that my estimation of Ayckbourn has considerably improved. While his plays are governed by predictable gender constructions (women as housewives, men as presumed bread-winners), this is chiefly because he portrays worlds in which such constructions remain of paramount importance. Suburbia (especially in the mid-1970s, when The Norman Conquests was written) would have collapsed if women had rebelled against their partners. Whether such distinctions apply today is another matter. Nonetheless, this World Service drama revival, directed by Gordon House, reminded us of just how fragile the ego can be, especially when people are gathered together in large groups.