Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 23, 2009
The Old Vic Theatre Company Production of The Norman Conquests by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Scenery and costumes designed by Rob Howell. Lighting designed by David Howe. Music by Gary Yershon. Sound designed by Simon Baker. Starring Amelia Bullmore, Jessica Hynes, Stephen Mangan, Ben Miles, Paul Ritter, Amanda Root.
These seven words are uttered by the lovably loathsome lothario who’s the title character of The Norman Conquests, the bawdy, bouncy, and boisterous 1973 comedy trilogy by Alan Ayckbourn. But they can just as easily serve as the theme statement of the plays themselves, as well as of the accomplished Matthew Warchus-directed productions of them that have just transferred from London’s Old Vic to the Circle in the Square.
Rare indeed in the theatre - and certainly uncommon in recent Broadway memory - is the guilty-pleasure gut-buster that doesn’t also leave you with pangs of remorse the morning after. Just in recent weeks, Exit the King, God of Carnage, and reasons to be pretty have doled out the laughs with generous side dishes of serious meaning. Ayckbourn’s shows don’t demand as much. They’re carefully crafted and even occasionally moving but, ultimately and unapologetically, they’re all about the funny.
And the experience. You’ve undoubtedly heard by now that you can see as many or as few of the individual titles - Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden - as you like, and in any order you like. That’s strictly true. But be forewarned that not diving in all the way, whether via individual evenings or the start-to-finish Saturday “Trilogy Days,” will result in missing a handful of facets of characterization, a fair number of laughs, and a theatrical endurance story of no small consequence.
Not that the plays are in any way a slog, or as laden with weight and importance as the last three part epic Broadway saw two seasons ago, Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia. But in the current economy, the necessary cash outlay for tickets to three shows is a major consideration, and devoting the required time (at least seven in-theater hours, not counting Trilogy Day lunch and dinner breaks) is another kind of difficult. So you have the right to anticipate some payoff for your investment. And you get it. But is what you receive in return the precise equal of what you give out? In my estimation: not quite.
The cavorting, kissing, and rolling around on the ground unfolds in three separate locales (which have been designed with generally spare but pinpoint efficiency by Rob Howell, who also did the comfortably kitschy costumes), one per play: Table Manners is set in the dining room, Living Together in the living room, and Round and Round the Garden in... well, you know. The general plot remains roughly the same across the plays - whom will Norman romance, and will he do it without the other women finding out? - the tenor of each varies greatly depending on the locale. When seated for meals, the conversation takes on a more nibbling, stuffed tone, and verbal indigestion happens much more readily; laid-back confessions and, in general, just lying around are more appropriate for the living room; and once everyone is outside, they’re all poised to join in a nastily natural Bacchanal.
Ayckbourn deftly modulates the tone between the rooms, giving each play its own distinct color and sound; Warchus matches it emphatically, with surge-and-pause pacing that ensures no play could feel as snug anywhere else. The actors are similarly splendid and in tune with whatever their surroundings happen to be. The chronic physical and psychological weariness Hynes brings to her portrayal makes Annie the most sympathetic of those onstage. But Miles is a rollicking hoot as the pathetic Tom, and Ritter so resolutely businesslike as the straitlaced Reg that any deviation from the expected makes him a comic magnet. Root is perfectly mated with him: Her Sarah is a prudish prune just ripe for the plumping, prime to bloom into radiant abandon the instant she’s touched. Bullmore is ceaselessly amusing as the far-sighted but clear-eyed Ruth, but so connects with her character’s anger and pain that she’s plays sole identifiable victim.
If you can only swing one play, it should not be Living Together, which offers the least as an individual entity and derives the most from the happenings in the other plays. If you can manage all three, the Trilogy Day order is tops: Table Manners, then Living Together, and finally Round and Round the Garden. The first is the best at establishing the emotional baseline for events, and the characters’ lunch and dinner badinage (punctuated by the most uproarious salad-eating and alcohol-drinking you’re ever likely to see onstage) makes it the funniest overall. The second is transitionally written, affectionate, and the most dependent on everyone’s comings and goings. The last, containing the earliest and latest scenes in the chronology and the heaviest dollops of sight gags and farcical humor, will resonate louder and longer once you’ve come to intimately know everyone.
That said, The Norman Conquests is no Coast of Utopia. It lacks that work’s majesty and sense of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and because its chapters happen essentially simultaneously rather than sequentially, seeing all three chapters is not that much different than merely seeing one. And although there are some secret pleasures to be had by those who conquer the full trio, they’re not exactly powerful, profound, or prurient in any earth-shaking way. You’ll leave the theater entertained, but not changed - this is one theatrical outing where the memories don’t burn as brightly as the during-the-event moments.
But how enjoyable those moments are, whether spread across one, two, or three plays. Norman might only want to make his women happy, but he and the others involved in The Norman Conquests will also do the same - if not much more - for you.