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A CurtainUp Review
The Norman Conquests

The Norman Conquests Trilogy On Broadway

London review of The Norman Conquests
I want us to have a quiet meal, to be able to go in the lounge afterward, sit down all six of us and enjoy each other's company.— Sarah.
Are you aware the six people are Norman, to name but five. And Ruth. That's a civil war to start with.—Reg.
What Reg hints at in Round and Round the Garden, proves all too true (and funny) during dinner in Table Manners and afterwards in Living Together.

The Norman Conquests
Stephen Mangan as Norman
(Photo: Richard Termine)
Unlike the London revival of Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquest, the review of which follows these comments, the New York production is in a theater that needed no major re-configuration to suit the playwright's recommended in-the-round viewing. The Circle in the Square, though often a three-sided thrust with a long and awkward stage, works beautifully in the round. With the theatergoers encircling the stage there isn't a single bad seat from which to appreciate the Rob Howell's spectacular two-tiered set: a large round disk with a beautifully detailed English countryside scene that rises over the matching stage-filling set and drops down again at the end of each act.

Since my schedule made booking one of the Saturday marathon performances of all three plays impossible, I decided to see the plays on three consecutive evenings. This scheduling was also a chance to test the promotional literature's claim that each play is free standing and that all three can be seen in any order. While the all-in-one trilogy order is Table Manners set in the worn-out old house's dining room, followed by Living Together in the living room and ending with Round and Round the Garden, my Mon-Tues-Wed schedule, began in the garden, moved on to the hilarious lettuce and soup dinner in the dining room and ended in the living room, which is the middle play of the marathon schedule.

The good news is that the claims made by the show's promoters are valid. The Norman Conquests fulfills Ayckbourn's aim to make each play work individually and also as a piece in the sort of theatrical puzzles he loves. If you're hard pressed to find time for all three plays, not to mention the money to cover the cost (even with available discounts), a single play will provide enough hints about the characters' previous and subsequent interactions to be poignant, fun and easy to follow; and, if you're planning to see all three, yes, you can do so in any order.

The fact that the same six characters —a brother, two sisters, two spouses and a neighbor who's a potential husband for the caretaking youngest daughter — are assembled at their cantankerous, never seen mother's shabby country house for a weekend during which everything that could go wrong, does, may make these plays that go through the same events but from different perspectives seem as inseparable as Siamese triplets. However, with each play set in another part of the house and also shifting the focus from character to character and couple to couple, much of the viewer's pleasure stems from being a bit of a sleuth and picking up on all the hints about plans gone awry and feelings simmering below the surface.

The single play feasibility notwithstanding, seeing all three plays does make for a richer experience. If you therefore decide to splurge for everything on offer, get a ticket for a different part of the seating section for each play. The sightlines are equally good all around, but each section provides a fresh overview of Howell's amazingly detailed rising and falling canopy.

Since Lizzie Loveridge's review covered the plot details of all the plays in the order seen during the marathon viewing, I'll just add some comments and observations. ( the London review of The Norman Conquests ) To begin, a word about Ayckbourn's appeal to American audiences. His plays do indeed epitomize " Englishness." However, it's more than likely that The Norman Conquests' first appearance on Broadway was rather short-lived because it featured an American cast to portray these so distinctly English characters. When Ayckbourn's plays arrive on our shores with an English cast (like Private Fears Public Places and Intimate Exchanges, both part of the popular Brits Off-Broadway Festival at 59e59th street-- see link below) audiences respond both to Ayckbourn's clever structural gimmickry and the darkness that adds depth to his humor.

Luckily, this new but hilarious and poignant as ever Norman Conquests has come to Broadway with the terrific British cast and director from the much lauded Old Vic production on board. While Mr. Warchus has made quite a name for himself as the director of of Yasmina Rez's plays, most recently God of Carnage (review) none of the cast members are likely to be as well known as were their 1975 American counterparts (Richard Benjamin, Ken Howard, Barry Nelson Estelle Parsons, Paula Prentice and Carole Shelley). But, no matter. This is a simply superb ensemble. Their timing is sheer perfection— whether individually or in concert, whether in landing a punch line or coming out of some of the meaningful pauses that punctuate this family's idiosyncratic behavior. Their body language and facial expressions are fraught with meaning so that you'll often find yourself laughing even when not a word is said.

Stephen Mangan as the appallingly appealing serial seducer Norman and Amelia Bullmore as his high strung, workaholic wife Ruth are the nominal leads. Mangan captures the teddy bear charm that makes Norman as exasperating as he is irresistible and causes many a piqued interchange that, amongst other comparisons, liken him to an unmanageable dog and an emotional big dipper. Amelia Bullmore brings a surge of tense energy to her every appearance on stage. The four other actors are equally wonderful. Since all get several star turns it's not an understatement to call this a six-star cast.

In looking back on the plays as a whole, my first instinct was to pick Table Manners as my favorite, if only for the dinner scene, a meal consisting of lettuce and soup and at which the perennially misbehaved Norman (Stephen Mangan), dressed up in his dead father-in-law's much too big dinner suit, is at his most outrageously funny; especially, in his use of the hapless Tom (a delightfully droll Ben Miles) who's been seated in an undersized chair as the butt of punchline after punchline. On the other hand, Living Together, probably best clarifies why the acid tinged dialogue that makes you wonder why Ruth and Norman and Sarah and Reg (Amanda Root and Paul Ritter) haven't long ago thrown in the marital towel (Ruth tells Norman "I took you for a husband Norman. Very foolishly. I can feel my life expectancy shorten minute by minute. After this weekend it's down by 5 years"—— but her actions show her to be even less able to resist Norman as her sister and sister-in-law).

Hilarious as the Table Manners dinner and the business of Tom dwarfed in a low chair are, all three plays have their own very funny visual jokes: Ruth's attempt to relax in the garden (Round and Round. . .) being foiled by a beach chair's resistance to easy set-up and, just as funny, her bodily contortions during a passionate scene with Norman in the living room (Living Together).

By the time the weekend ends and leaves you in whatever play you've chosen to see, you'll know all six of these characters well enough to understand why both Annie and her cat seem to elude Tom the vet, why Reg and Sarah rarely agree on anything and whether Ruth stays with Norman and, if so, why. Naturally you'll know a them three times as well if you see all three of The Norman's Conquests.

to read the London review of The Norman Conquests
Links to other Ayckbourn plays reviewed at Curtainup.
Absurd Person Singular-Broadway, 2005
Bedroom Farce (Off-Broadway, 2008)
By Jeeves-Ayckbourn with Andres LLoyd-Webber (NY)
A Chorus of Disapproval--Los Angeles 2006
Comic Potentialn- Off-Broadway 2002 (
Communicating Doors-Off Broadway 1998
Damsels In Distress: GamePlan, FlatSpin. and RolePlay-London 2--2
House and Garden (London and New York 2002)
Intimate Exchanges/Ayckbourn, Alan
Private Fears Public Places/Ayckgourn, Alan (Brits Off-Broadway Festival 2005)
Taking Steps/Alan Ayckbourn (Berkshires)
Woman In Mind/Alan Ayckbourn (Berkshires)

NEW YORK PRODUCTION NOTES Norman Conquests: Table Manners (Dining Room), Living Together (Living Room) , Round and Round the Garden (Garden) By Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Cast: Amelia Bullmore (Ruth), Jessica Hynes (Annie), Stephen Mangan (Norman), Ben Miles (Tom), Paul Ritter (Reg) and Amanda Root (Sarah).
Design: Rob Howell
Lighting: David Howe
Sound: Simon Baker
Music: Gary Yershon
Running time with intermission: Table Manners- 2 hours 20 minutes, Living Together- 2 hours 10 minutes, Round and Round the Garden- 2 hours 15 minutes.
Circle in the Square 235 West 50th Street (212) 239-6200
From 4/07/09; opening 4/23/09; closing 7/25/09. The Trilogy Saturdays 11 AM, 3 PM and 8 PM.
Tue at 7pm; Wed - Sat at 8pm; Wed at 2pm; Sat at 11am, 3pm Tickets: $107.00 - $112.00, $255.00 3-play marathon
Review by Elyse Sommer based on April 13, 14, 15th press previews
The London review of The Norman Conquests

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London review of The Norman Conquests by Lizzie Loveridge

I'm wondering which is the quickest and cleanest way to finish myself off.— Norman
Well don't get married. That's long and messy.— Reg in Living Together.
What a wonderful day in the theatre we had to see Alan Ayckbourn's 1973 trilogy, The Norman Conquests!

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

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