Plays, like people, should not be put into pigeonholes. For years, I have made this mistake with Alan Ayckbourn, assuming that his plays are popular farces or light middle-class comedies, and - because popular - probably not very good or even very funny. As a result, I have never seen one until now.
A new production at the Old Vic of his 1973 trilogy The Norman Conquests has proved me entirely wrong. Not only is it exceptionally funny and technically accomplished, it also - to compare small things with great - touches in its farcical way on some of the questions about the force of destiny raised so powerfully by Sophocles' Oedipus, now in repertory at the National Theatre.
Alan Ayckbourn may not quite be Sophocles, but he ought to be consoled by having one of the greatest gifts any writer can hope for - he can make people laugh. I laughed until I almost cried at Living Together, the second of the trilogy, and the other two plays are very funny as well, even in cold print. They are written both to stand independently and to work together.
All three plays concern the same three couples, who come together in the house of a malevolent old mother, bedridden upstairs and unseen. During a wearing family weekend, her son-in-law Norman (of the Conquests) tries to seduce both her daughters (his sisters-in-law), and then his own disaffected wife, with painful and hilarious consequences all round.
The woe that is marriage, the farce that is family, the petty cruelties of sibling rivalry and the helpless misery with which everyone falls into his or her unwanted but appointed role are all developed with horrible precision. It's funny precisely because it's so acutely recognisable: even those from the best regulated of homes must see resemblances between the cruel squabbling on stage and their own family history. Ayckbourn is well served by almost faultless actors who find every subtle nuance, and at the same time could probably make even the programme notes funny.