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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Norman Conquests (Table Manners, Living Together, Round And Round The Garden)
Old Vic Theatre        Autumn-Winter 2008

First, a bit of explanation: The Norman Conquests is three full-length plays that cover the same period of time, with the same characters, in the dining room, living room and garden of a country house.

Each play's scenes take place between - and sometimes simultaneously with - the scenes of the others, so a character walking offstage in one play is understood to be walking on in another.

(Unlike Alan Ayckbourn's similarly structured House and Garden, the plays are not performed simultaneously in adjoining theatres, with the cast actually running back and forth, but on successive nights or a marathon Saturday. But if you see one of the trilogy, and part of the audience laughs unexpectedly at a character's entrance, it's because they remember where he's coming from in one of the others.)

The plays are independent enough that you can see any one of them alone and have a satisfying evening, but seeing all three does add a lot to the fun.

Three interrelated couples gather for a weekend, where the most irresponsible and unpredictable of the men proves, in his hangdog way, irresistible to women, making assignations with each of his sisters-in-law and re-seducing his exasperated wife.

Meanwhile nobody, including the seducer and seducees, is quite able to keep up with all the shifting connections and cover stories, leading to a string of farcical misunderstandings and cross-purpose conversations.

It's all very funny, but Ayckbourn's mode is not just clever construction but the exposure of the cracks beneath the surface of middle-class life.

The fact that Norman can win over each of the women betrays hungers for more than life has given them, and his compulsive womanising says a lot about him as well.

It is Ayckbourn's special talent that the touches of darkness and sadness do not interfere with the comedy, but enhance it.

For this production, the venerable Old Vic Theatre has been converted into a theatre-in-the-round, and my only criticism of Matthew Warchus's skilled direction is that he does not seem fully to have mastered the difficulties inherent in the form.

It is inevitable in the round that at some points some actors will have their backs to you, but I saw the plays from different places in the house, and compared notes with friends who sat elsewhere, and in each of the plays there were key dramatic or comic moments that could only be fully seen by part of the audience.

For example, for me one of the most touching moments in all three plays came when the most up-tight of the wives found her shell cracking under Norman's spell.

Amanda Root played the moment beautifully, but only the people on my side of the theatre could see the range of emotions racing through her facial expressions. But there were other moments, perhaps equally effective, where all I saw were backs.

Those old enough to remember the original 1973 production or the subsequent television version are likely to find this revival a little more dramatic and less lightly farcical.

Certainly Stephen Mangan gives Norman's shambolic fecklessness a sad undertone, letting us sense a real need to touch and be touched by others, with seduction merely the simplest and most direct way of doing that.

Amanda Root traverses both comedy and drama by showing us the lonely fragility beneath her control-freak shrew, and Ben Miles makes the dim neighbour particularly funny by playing him throughout with a look of being completely mystified by life.

If you can only see one, Table Manners is marginally the funniest. But I really recommend the complete trilogy - it really is a case of the whole being more than the sum of the parts.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  The Norman Conquests - Old Vic Theatre 2008
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