The Norman Conquests

Alan Ayckbourn

Old Vic

(2008)

Review by Philip Fisher

Ten hours of Alan Ayckbourn (seven plus intervals) may not be everybody's idea of heaven but The Norman Conquests show the theatrical knight at his very best, with his affectionate portrait of three incompatible couples.

The real challenge for Matthew Warchus and his superb cast is to dispel memories of the likes of Michael Gambon and Tom Courtenay in the original production three and a half decades ago or Penelope Keith with Tom Conti excelling in the televised version, now available on DVD.

That takes a little time but the 2008 cast quickly get into their stride and then the audience can wallow in seven hours of pretty sustained laughter, with real heart underlying it.

Designer Rob Howell has worked with the theatre to stage the trilogy in the round, on a circular stage placed just in front of the proscenium. This is canopied by a charming, double sided idyll of semi-rural life with trees uncannily like sticks of broccoli and houses that illuminate in the dark.

Where Ayckbourn, a master of domestic minutiae, really scores is in portraying the kind of people that we not only know but are. With great observational skill and by the tiniest accentuations, he not only creates believable situations but makes us laugh at his inventions' foibles and, by extension, our own.

These plays take place at the same time and can therefore be viewed in any order. Warchus sticks with the most common for opening day/night but promises to vary them thereafter. The director, who also directed Kevin Spacey in Speed the Plow at the Old Vic, gets almost nothing wrong during the long event, except for too static a staging at times, leaving actors' backs in view for lengthy periods.

Table Manners

This play opens the trilogy well, as the awful Sarah (Amanda Root more intelligent but also more vulnerable than Penelope Keith) arrives to relieve her sister-in-law Jessica Hynes' slovenly-dressed Annie from caring for the latter's demanding mother.

Put-upon Annie's long weekend away becomes an even longer one at home after Sarah discovers that her proposed companion in East Grinstead is not her slow-witted suitor Tom, a vet played by Ben Miles, but her brother-in-law Norman.

Stephen Mangan has great fun as this manic-depressive assistant librarian who sees himself as a would-be Casanova born at the wrong time and in the wrong place. The lucky actor not only gets many of the funniest lines in the part of this romantic drunkard but has impeccable comic timing which ensures that every opportunity to laugh is enjoyed to the full.

Norman seems unbearable until his half-blind wife Ruth, an insensitive businesswoman portrayed by actor-playwright Amelia Bullmore, rolls up. Then, one begins to sympathise with the charming womaniser, at least to an extent.

At a final breakfast when he is thrown together with his bête noir, Sarah, the empathy that they generate through Norman's desire to be a father and her frustrations as a mother receiving no support from Paul Ritter as Reg, is genuinely moving. This is something that could not have been predicted two hours earlier as the feminine vitriol was pouring out towards the heavily-bearded gigolo.

Living Together

The focus moves from the dining room to the lounge for the second part but covers the same time lines and overall plot. The really clever idea is to re-examine actions with hindsight, many of the best laughs coming as a result of knowing the background to remarks or actions.

Once again, the family goes about its mundane collective life, with colour added by deadly home-made carrot wine, which powers Norman's unavailing attempts to seduce each woman in turn, including the prudish, repressed Sarah and his own wife.

Here, there is an opportunity for voyeuristic viewers to spy on Norman's liberal use of a fluffy brown rug for his attempted debauches.

In this setting too, we listen in on the three siblings as they talk of their awful mother and the hang-ups that she has left them with.

Sarah's husband, prototypical estate agent Reg, gets his chance to express his own frustrations that many will understand. He is trapped in a loveless, hen-pecked life of tedium, in which nobody will humour him by playing the convoluted homemade games that he has invented.

Round and Round the Garden

The final four acts take place in a garden immaculately created by Rob Howell. The open air somehow unbridles the passions of each of the characters and, at one point, leads to an incipient orgy, after which nothing can ever be quite the same.

On the last morning, we fully understand exactly why everyone behaves as they do and it is appropriate that the end of such a long and pleasurable day should come with a symbolic crash.

By that point only Tom, who must surely have been modelled on Malvolio, has evaded Norman's clutches and even he has become human, at least for a moment, thanks to the efforts of the constantly wired, brittle Ruth.

It would be good to report a happy ending to an unhappy weekend but, as in real life, the likelihood is that these characters will, like Chekhov's, do no better than endure their lot, hoping for isolated moments of pleasure.

The Norman Conquests is a real triumph for all concerned in the reconfigured Old Vic. The play still feels absolutely fresh two generations after it was first produced and the old barn itself actually feels intimate, which is so important for a family drama.

As a result of this and great work from Matthew Warchus and his consistently marvellous cast, by the end one feels that one knows these people like old friends. The whole event is packed with great wit but also real, compassionate insights into the mundanity of middle class life in the 1970s and also, one fears, today.

A day out at the Old Vic is priced at only around two-thirds of the normal individual prices and even though this comes out at £100 for the best seats, it is still worth every penny.

Playing until 20 December