The Norman Conquests
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 22, 2009
Seeing all three of the plays that comprise Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests is a fun but exhausting endeavor, especially if you manage it, as I did, within a 24-hour period. Okay: 26-1/2 hours, starting with Round and Round the Garden on Tuesday at 8 and concluding with Table Manners, whose (metaphorical) curtain came down at 10:30 on the following night.
During seven of those hours I was in the audience at Circle in the Square (happily in different locations, and therefore able to get a different perspective on things at each play), immersed in the very funny trials and tribulations of Norman, a frumpy assistant librarian who fancies himself a Lothario; his no-nonsense, all-business wife, Ruth; his sister-in-law Sarah, a meddlesome and opinionated club woman/housewife; her husband Reg (who is Ruth's brother), an estate agent who prefers his hobbies to pretty much anything else in life; Annie, Reg and Ruth's younger sister, who has remained with their demanding elderly mother in their country home; and Tom, a vet and Annie's neighbor and very-sort-of boyfriend. The locale is Annie's house, or more specifically three areas within the house, one per play: Table Manners happens in the dining room, Living Together in the sitting room, and Round and Round the Garden (obviously) outside in the garden. It's a weekend in July. An eventful weekend.
The inciting incident, as it were, is Annie's plan to go on holiday. Reg and Sarah have driven down to care for Reg and Annie's mother (a wonderfully vivid character whom we never meet but feel we know by the time the show is over). It quickly develops that Annie is not going away on her own, but with Norman (they had a bit of a tryst the previous Christmas). Annie and Norman had intended to sneak away (to a woebegone place called East Grinstead), but inevitably Sarah finds out what's going on and soon so do Reg, Tom, and Ruth. Hilarity, in the form of carefully controlled chaos, ensues.
The ingenious plan of The Norman Conquests trilogy is that the three plays unfold not sequentially but rather simultaneously. All three begin on the Saturday evening with the arrival of Sarah and Reg, and all three end on Monday morning with everybody's departure. You can glean the story sufficiently from any of the plays to make the experience of seeing a single one satisfying. But you won't know all the bits and details—and you won't get all the jokes—unless you see them all. (The producers and the playwright want you to believe that it doesn't matter what order you see them in, but I don't think that's entirely true. Table Manners, which has the clearest exposition, is the play to start with; Round and Round the Garden, which contains the final scene in the play chronologically, should be your finish. See Living Together in between. And if you can only see one, choose either Table Manners or Round and Round the Garden to maximize clarity and laugh quotient.)
This is farce firmly rooted in character: the laughs flow from people trying to behave normally within a situation that's anything but. Matthew Warchus stages the plays in the round (audience is on all sides, and at close hand), which facilitates the naturalism that is required to ground the play in reality—people move about the rooms and garden the way we would, rather than lining up the way actors often must. Each play has at least one hilarious set piece with a strong physical component that builds and builds, but most of the humor comes from Ayckbourn's razor-sharp dialogue.
This is absolutely an ensemble piece, and the company that a flock of producers has imported from London's Old Vic Theatre is top-notch and works together brilliantly. My personal favorites are Ben Miles, who plays the ponderous Tom as a man with a slow wit and a good heart, and Paul Ritter, who is utterly convincing and quite likable as lazy, lonely, make-the-best-of-everything Reg. Stephen Mangan is appealingly goofy as Norman, but the more time I spent with his character the more I sensed a manipulative streak that I found unattractive. Amelia Bullmore is spot-on as Ruth, and her adventure with a folding chair in Round and Round the Garden was the highpoint of the trilogy's hilarity for me. I found that I warmed to Jessica Hynes's scruffy, sometimes abrasive Annie more with each new play. But Amanda Root's Sarah didn't always work for me—I thought she missed the authority and rigor of the character, replacing it with a weak whininess that put me off (in Root's defense, I have very fond memories of Penelope Keith's Sarah from the TV version of The Norman Conquests, which I saw quite a few years ago).
Rob Howell has given the trilogy a design as ingenious and clever as Ayckbourn's structure for it, and David Howe's lighting and Simon Baker's sound support it beautifully, providing useful clues about where we are within the weekend during any given scene. Gary Yershon's music feels less evocative, though, and the choice to use Nina Simone's cover of "Here Comes the Sun" for exit music, though period-appropriate, puzzled me: I never knew what I was meant to be feeling as I left this crazy family weekend for the relative safety of the Manhattan street.