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picture - The Norman ConquestsTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published May 1, 2009


The Norman Conquests

now playing on Broadway at Circle in the Square Theater

through July 25


It is one thing to have been famous all your life, with a list of commercial successes that would be the envy of most playwrights, and to have achieved, in one’s own lifetime, one’s own theater. It is another thing, having earned all that, to suddenly win a place among the serious giants of the theater – the Chekhovs and the Pinters – and to, finally, be taken seriously yourself.  But thanks to the Old Vic, and especially to the director, Matthew Warchus, Alan Ayckbourn has been, with the revival of his trilogy, The Norman Conquests, paid that sort of attention. It might be said that he has been canonized. In the theater, sometimes, it doesn’t take more than the revival of a comedy to enter into the stratosphere. It couldn’t happen to a better playwright; in fact, from this reviewer’s point of view, it has taken far too long. And it is good that it happened through a play that was written in what was his playwriting youth, because we can now begin to look at the other work with much tighter scrutiny and finally arrive at the truth that Ayckbourn was getting better and better with age. We may even discover that Ayckbourn’s main subject was always death. And we are starting now with a play (or, rather, three plays)  that, on the surface, is genuinely overflowing with life. Greatness is achieved when one discovers that, under all that riotous laughter, the melancholy knowledge that the journey one takes to get through life puts us on a slippery path indeed. The danger here is that we don’t overpraise Mr. Ayckbourn’s work. It would be a sin to lose him just when we found him.


Frankly, Ayckbourn’s own production, created in tandem with members of his own company, Private Fears in Public Places, which played here several years ago, was deeper and richer work.  Together, with The Norman Conquests, it could be assumed that Ayckbourn is truly heard best when played by British actors. But Private Fears became a haunting French film, directed by the great Alain Resnais. And this reviewer sensed that Ayckbourn was more than just a British Neil Simon, through an American production of Absurd Person Singular, with a cast that included Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis and Carole Shelley, an evening in the theater I count among my happiest memories.


picture - The Norman ConquestsBut the three plays that comprise The Norman Conquests (“Table Manners,” “Living Together,” and “Round and Round the Garden”) , beautifully and unusually structured to play around with time and perspective, are formally experimental set-ups for the most devastating and wildly uproarious revelations of character. And, in devoting three plays to six characters who, in someone else’s hands, would hardly interest us for two hours, he proves that people are just like all of us, tiresomely familiar and endlessly fascinating, and that, if seen from every possible angle, are still just blueprints for what they will become. That is what makes them Chekhovian, perhaps. But they are, first and foremost, comedies. And even though Ayckbourn clearly understands the social system that defines these people, they do not owe as much to their social background as Chekhov’s plays clearly do.


And, because they are comedies, we, as well as Ayckbourn, should be thankful for Matthew Warchus, whose understanding of what is funny under any circumstances is second to none, and who clearly knows the best British character actors around (Mark Rylance’s performance in Boeing-Boeing is the one thing last season I urged everyone I knew not to miss). Warchus has gathered together one of the season’s most accomplished ensembles, given them both their structure and their freedom, made them at home on Rob Howell’s pitch-perfect sets and let them loose. And then he found, in between the nutty comic passages, the silences and the dazed reactions and the pauses that are at the center of what is really happening to these people.


What happens? Annie (Jessica Hynes) takes care of her mother in an old country house. She has an assignation to spend a weekend with her brother-in-law Norman (Stephen Mangan), so she asks her brother Reg (Paul Ritter) and his wife Sarah (Amanda Root) to watch over their mother while she’s away. Her fling with Norman is a stab at making jealous the dim veterinarian Tom (Ben Miles) she sees as possible husband material, but Tom is indeed too dim to see the light. Norman himself shows up, messing up the arrangements, and, before long, Norman, a shaggy librarian who sees himself as something of a Lothario, is after Sarah, and then his own myopic wife Ruth (Amelia Bullmore) shows up (she is also Annie and Reg’s sister) and, before you can guess what will happen, the unguessable begins to takes place. What is striking about the compassionate view that Ayckbourn takes of these characters is how almost tragic they sometimes seem and, at the same time, how capable they are of being utterly ridiculous.


picture - The Norman ConquestsEach separate play gives one or two characters a particular chance to shine, but it is in the subtle interplay, rather than the high comic moments, that they are fleshed out with such ferocity and poignance. Nevertheless, what you will remember, and rightly so, are those comic moments. Or, perhaps, you will remember how one fuses into another. The delicacy of the encounter between Tom and Annie in the third play, the difficulty Ben Miles has in expressing himself and the patience with which Jessica Hynes hears him out, is etched permanently in my soul. The desire to voluptuously unfold herself to Norman mixed with the natural sense of repression that keeps her from doing so is what you may remember when you think of Amanda Root’s Sarah. Paul Ritter’s Reg is a certified treat throughout, but his impersonation of the players on a chess set must be seen to be believed.  Amelia Bullmore walking into things and refusing to admit she can’t see anything (“The only thing I can’t see is people!”) is cockeyed enough, but watching her put together a folding lawn chair is the height of outrageous behavior. Stephen Mangan’s wild-eyed, buffoonish, sheepish, slyly sexy Norman is the character around whom the plays revolve, but he doesn’t dominate the evenings, though it has to be admitted that it is his tirade in “Table Manners” that most clearly demonstrates the brilliance not only of Ayckbourn’s writing but of his style and technique at their best.


I am not recommending you see only one play. This is an event and it should be treated as such, so seeing all three plays is imperative. But, if you want to sample just one, in order to get a taste of what joys might or might not lie in wait for you, try “Table Manners.” I think it’s the one you should see first anyway.


harveyperr @


all photos are by Joan Marcus



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