By Lucy Komisar
Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests is an ultra-sophisticated comedy that verges perilously close to sitcom, then skirts around it. The round-robin of three plays is what the clever British author posits against the normal sequential serial, a Rashomon style retake of the same events from the viewpoint of different locations rather than different people. The Old Vic Theatre Company gives the tri-part event an engaging revival, returning it to Broadway after 35 years. It is not the slightest bit dated.
The characters move between the garden, the living room and the dining room, and we see in each play only what occurs in those venues. When someone moves from the living room to the dining room, he’s moving to another play. Seeing one play is enough to understand the script. Seeing all of them deepens your sense of the characters and understanding of their connections.
The action is often slapstick, but the characters are so skillfully and sympathetically drawn, that it rises far above what sitcom and slapstick denote on television or routinely dumb movies.
The goings-on take place at the upscale English country house of an invalid lady we never see, though we learn that she had a spirited life and now reads torrid novels. She lives with her unmarried daughter Annie (Jessica Hynes), who alas has a rather tepid though likeable boyfriend Tom (Ben Miles), a veterinarian, who seems to exercise more passion for the cat in the tree than for Annie.
So she has agreed to a secret weekend assignation with her brother-in-law Norman, the extremely appealing Stephen Mangan, a shaggy dog sort of fellow who sports slovenly clothes and a wool ski cap. To take care of mom, Annie has invited her brother Reg (Paul Ritter) and his wife Sarah (Amanda Root) to visit.
Of course, nothing goes according to plan, and in the unraveling of the great weekend, we learn that Annie isn’t the only disappointed soul. The marriage of Reg, a real estate agent, and Sarah, a complaining housewife, is stale and full of bickering. Ruth (Amelia Bullmore), Norman’s wife, shows up in a hot red dress to complete the twosomes. She has a serious business career, and her stormy relationship with her immature, wise-cracking assistant librarian spouse (their jobs shows clear status divisions) appears to be saved by hot sex. Or uncontrollable animal lust, as it’s described. Norman’s interest in other women certainly confirms the uncontrollable part.
Sex is a subject that is pursued or thought about by various players, though, in spite of some good-natured rolling around on the floor, this is not a risqué production. In fact, it’s mostly about how none of the six really get what he or she wants.
The play rises on the excellent ensemble acting. Bullmore is very good as the assertive, touchy, seething Ruth. So is Ben Miles as the always timid, nervous, embarrassed Tom. He presents the funniest inept marriage proposal I’ve ever seen. Stephen Mangan’s supple, moving face is theater in itself. Amanda Root channels the tight-lipped wound-up Sarah. Paul Ritter is good as the wry, fast-talking Reg, and Jessica Hynes is has you rooting for her as the slightly dowdy put-upon Annie.
Ayckbourn’s language, of the sort you don’t hear on any telly, raises all to a higher level. Take Ruth declaring, People you think won’t last long cling on grimly till death. But the wit is in the situations, not the language.
Designer Rob Howell theater-in-the-round sets totally surrounded by the audience bring you into a level of intimacy that stops only short of reaching out for a cup of tea or coffee at the dining table.
The Norman Conquests. (Round & Round the Garden, Living Together and Table Manners.) Written by Alan Ayckbourn, directed by Matthew Warchus. The Old Vic Theatre Company at Circle in the Square, 50th Street between Bway & 8th Avenue. 212-239-6200. Opened April 23, 2009; Closes July 25, 2009.
Review on NY Theatre-Wire site