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The Old Vic's "The Norman Conquests", a Trilogy of Plays, at Circle in the Square
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The Old Vic's "The Norman Conquests", a Trilogy of Plays, at Circle in the Square

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The Old Vic Theatre Company
Production of:
The Norman Conquests
(The Norman Conquests Web Page)
By Alan Ayckbourn

Table Manners
Living Together
Round and Round the Garden

Presented by Sonia Friedman Productions,
Steven Baruch, Marc Routh, Richard Frankel,
Tom Viertel, et al.

Circle in the Square
50th Street, at 1633 Broadway

Amelia Bullmore as Ruth
Jessica Hynes as Annie
Stephen Mangan as Norman
Ben Miles as Tom
Paul Ritter as Reg
Amanda Root as Sarah

Directed by Matthew Warchus
Scenery and Costume Design: Rob Howell
Lighting Design: David Howe
Music: Gary Yershon
Sound Design: Simon Baker
Press: Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Production Stage Manager: Ira Mont
Production Manager: Aurora Productions
Original Casting: Gabrielle Dawes, CDG
US General Mgmt.: Frankel Green Theatrical Mgmt.
UK General Mgmt.: Diane Benjamin for SFP

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
April 25, 2009

What could be more enjoyable than watching someone else’s dysfunctional, extended family implode, in a Feydeau-evocative farce, as they flirt, fight, frolic, and fret. Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, first produced in the 1970’s, and more recently in London, at The Old Vic, with this same New York cast, is a trilogy. Three plays, like three paintings fastened as a triptych, are being presented at Circle in the Square, in varying schedules. However, on Saturdays, like today, you can watch all three plays in what seemed the perfect sequence, Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden. To see just one of these performances (over seven hours total) would be like viewing one-third of a triptych, a satisfying work of art, but much more meaningful with all the interwoven details. They are spaced on “Trilogy Saturdays” for lunch and dinner breaks, and the audience was engaged and emotionally energized throughout. Laughs abounded, and I saw people bending forward, focusing intently on this theater in the round.

Rob Howell’s original set, “a Victorian House in England during a weekend in July”, is created with moveable parts, visible above, that create a kitchen, a sitting room, and a garden, with bucolic and domestic sound effects that enhance the natural, casual ambiance of the production. Six characters interact, appearing one by one, and the momentum and magic begin, just as if we might be sitting on their couch, just as if we might actually know these people, so normal, yet so riveting. Annie (Jessica Hynes) lives in the home, which has seen better days, with her offstage ailing mother, and she has invited her brother Reg (Paul Ritter) and his wife Sarah (Amanda Root) to spend a weekend in her home to care for their mother, while she takes a needed vacation. The fun begins when Norman (Stephen Mangan) arrives early, in an unplanned scenario, to whisk Annie away on her “vacation”. Norman’s wife, Ruth (Amelia Bullmore), is also Reg and Annie’s sister. Norman is a needy, hormonal librarian, and he proceeds to seduce or almost seduce just about everyone in the house, minus the ailing mother, from early Saturday evening through late Monday morning. In fact, Norman’s favorite outfit is an over-sized pair of colorful pajamas.

The three plays within the trilogy do not have scenes that advance sequentially, as one play that would follow the other. That is, Table Manners has scenes from Sunday and Monday morning, while the third play, Round and Round the Garden, has the earliest Saturday night scene and the latest Monday morning scene. So, these are plays with clues! So deliciously British, so mind-grabbing, so clever to absorb our thoughts, hour after hour, as one clue leads to another. But, unlike many British mysteries, these are not frightening or harrowing episodes, but, rather, hilarious marital and relationship rumbles and ruckuses. Repartee turns to sarcasm, double-entendres, hidden meanings, and unfolding jealousies, and chemistry connects at the most inopportune moments; yet, Ayckbourn keeps the action campy, with sly wit and sophisticated conversation. What makes this trilogy enjoyable, never, ever tiring, is its ability to provoke thinking, concentration, and self-awareness of our own foibles and families and fantasies.

The sixth character in the trilogy, Tom (Ben Miles), is a local veterinarian, who is bottled up, emotionally, leaving Annie to succumb to Norman’s libidinous lack of inhibition. Norman is needy, while his wife, Ruth, is so taut and self-absorbed, that she refuses to wear glasses and bumps into people, seeing little, one of Ayckbourn’s metaphors. Annie has let herself go, selfless and unadorned, natural prey for Norman. Sarah, straight-laced and prim, is also Norman’s prey, as he sees her as a challenge, a woman with repressed lust. There’s even a scene with Norman and Reg, over-the-top riotous, and another of Norman with Ruth, the essence of marital surprise and adaptation. Tom changes little, frustrating poor Annie and those who root for her, while everyone else participates in the shifting scenes of who’s in the kitchen and who’s on the sitting room rug. Clues abound, with characters serving as spies and scorned spouses, and, in the third Garden play, there’s more visible romping than Feydeau could have imagined. This British cast from The Old Vic was truly persuasive, energized, and so charismatic. Matthew Warchus directed with astute timing and generated out-sized entertainment for this seven hours plus Saturday extravaganza.

Rob Howell’s creative sets and costumes, David Howe’s warm lighting, Gary Yershon’s intermittent music, and Simon Baker’s clear sound all added to this exceptional day at the theatre. Kudos to Alan Ayckbourn, and kudos to The Old Vic Theatre Company.

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For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at