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The Norman Conquests
London review of The Norman Conquests by Lizzie Loveridge
The first astonishing impact was the revised CQS space at The Old Vic where Kevin Spacey is the Artistic Director. The proscenium arch theatre has been re-organised so that the playing area is a circular stage with audience seating all around it. The design is very clever and we are excited that the plays are to be staged in the round all season. Above the circular playing area is a scene of English countryside with trees and a cricket pitch and houses with gardens on a disc as large as the stage, like the setting for a model railway, and with windows that light up at night time. On this disc, a projected clock with roman numerals shows the passing of time. When the model houses rise, we see their exact landscaped equivalent underneath forming a double sided canopy for the actors' context.
Ayckbourn's plays are peculiarly English as part of Englishness as the green landscape. They are closely observed masterpieces of English idiosyncratic behaviour and quirkiness. It may be for this reason their subtlety is less appreciated abroad. While the plays are comedies they also have small tragedies very close to the surface and the delicate juxtaposition of the two is thought provoking.
Each plays features the same five people in one family and the local vet. While mother is unseen upstairs, Sarah (Amanda Root) and Reg (Paul Ritter) have come to look after her for the weekend so that Annie (Jessica Hynes) can get away for a break. The only problem is that Annie is off for a saucy weekend with her brother in law Norman (Stephen Mangan) who is married to Annie and Reg's sister, Ruth (Amelia Bullimore). Annie's lukewarm suitor, the neighboring vet, Tom (Ben Miles) completes the sextet. Annie and Norman had a passionate encounter on the brown shag pile rug one Christmas and this "dirty weekend" was planned. Annie was hoping to get to the seaside at Hastings but as the hotels were all full, Norman has settled on suburban East Grinstead instead. With the revelations to all, except Tom who doesn't get it, of what was planned, the weekend is cancelled and everyone stays with mother. Norman's wife Ruth is summoned to join them.
The first play I saw is called Table Manners and takes place in the dining room, setting up a description of everyone, but concentrates on Sarah's controlling and manipulative behaviour as she tries to find out about and prevent Annie's planned weekend with Norman. Ruth arrives, tight, thin and swooping down like a predator to peer at things because she won't wear her glasses. This play has a wonderful evening meal where one guest, Tom, has to sit on a very small chair so that his chin is almost resting on the table top. Norman, dressed in one of his dead father in law's oversized suits, has been imbibing the delicious parsnip and dandelion homemade wine, and refers to Tom as the little fellow as if he were a child. Now you can see these plays in any order but you will get a different portrait of the characters, a change in emphasis, depending on which you see first. Under attack for his bad behaviour, Norman forms the most unlikely alliance with Sarah which turns into a flirtation. As it turns out, Sarah, who feels hard done by, would welcome an opportunity to relax and is actually thrilled with the frisson of an affair with Norman.
All three plays are set at the same time but show you what the rest of family are doing and talking about in different parts of the house and garden. Living Together the middle play (at least it's in the middle when the plays are seen in onde day) is set in the living room dominated by the brown shag pile rug. Rob Howell's designs are accurate without being obsessed with the 1970s but the clothes are wonderfully period with flared trousers and embarrassing fashions. Norman tries to teach Tom how to treat women mean in order to engage their affections, but it's hapless stuff as Tom is a less than able pupil. The result of this is Annie, having been told by newly steeled Tom to smarten herself up, wearing an awful frilly, floral frock instead of her usual trousers and oversized cardigan. In Living Together we get a more sympathetic portrait of Ruth and learn more about her marriage to the philandering Norman. Norman sadly describes Ruth's obsession with her work as an accountant and the lack of time she has for him. Round and Round the Garden takes place out of doors starting with Annie and Norman talking alone and culminates in the problem of getting Norman and Ruth's car on the road. Ruth's attempts to teach courtship to Tom are misunderstood as Tom takes these as a come-on from her. Tom is agonisingly indecisive about making his relationship with Annie any more committed and she knows deep down that Tom is not really romance material — he is more part of the furniture.
The combination and permutations make the plays even more fascinating. At the National Theatre in 2000, Ayckbourn's returned to this strategy of parallel action with his twin plays House and Garden, set in two theatres in real time with the actors running between stages. There are few concessions to the thirty years since The Norman Conquests plays were first seen, although twice we had a tiny scene of Norman almost using his sexual charm on Reg and Tom to potentially bring his conquests from three to five but it is just a passing allusion. The plays are not dated at all as infidelity and marital tedium seem to be timeless, as is the inheritance from our parents which Reg, Ruth and Annie struggle to be free off but fail like captive flies in a spider's web.
The direction from Matthew Warchus is brilliant. Playing in the round there are times when a character has their back to you but you are still fully involved. Even when Amanda Root as Sarah was turned away from me, I could see the tension in her shoulder blades as she reprimanded Reg or Annie. Curly haired and full bearded, Stephen Mangan is a delight as the sexually opportunistic librarian Norman. "I'm just magnetic or something, " he says. Ruth, his wife, counters with a description of him that includes odious, self centred, inconsiderate and shallow. Norman defends himself by saying he's not shallow, amusingly and implicitly admitting to the other three epithets. Paul Ritter as Reg has an uphill struggle to make his impossible wife content and there is a touching moment when the three siblings, Reg, Ruth and Annie look back on their shared childhood. The performances from all are nothing short of brilliant, believable and never descending into parody. These are couples we recognise. So accurate is his detailed description of Sarah, I thought Aykybourn has to have met the mother of a friend of mine with her obsessive house cleaning, self-pitying martyrdom, interference and descending into tears when she doesn't get her own way! Sarah's comments ring very true, "If it weren't for me the children would be naked! " or how, but for her, everyone would starve, as she advertises how very dependent everyone is on her choice of control, masquerading as self sacrifice.
Don't miss these mischievous Ayckbourn comedies as women who perceive their life as monotonous and unfulfilled try to break out for a fleeting romance, which they know deep down is ephemeral and illusory. And of course they are also about men who can't in the most part give women what they would like, see Reg and Tom. Norman on the other hand knows what charms women but the long term happiness they dream of with Norman would be blighted by his serial infidelity. And while you think about this, you'll be laughing.
The Norman Conquests ran at the Old Vic from September through December 2008, and was reviewed at 6th of October all-in-one performance