The Norman Conquests

Alan Ayckbourn
Ovation DVD
Triple Disc £19.99
(2006)

The Norman Conquests is a classic Alan Ayckbourn trilogy from the 1970s. The first surprise is that it was originally shown on Thames TV. For younger readers, this was the predecessor to what is now ITV1, a channel that will probably never show three televised stage plays with a combined running time of over five hours.

In the 1970s, not only did Thames commission Herbert Wise to film Ayckbourn's comedies but it showed them at prime time.

Nowadays, it is not too difficult to tire of incessant productions of the claustrophobic family comedies of manners in which the playwright specialises. It is therefore good to be able to step back occasionally and see some of his earlier and very best work.

The Norman Conquests is often extremely funny and at its best, sheds light on the dull lives of ordinary people for whom any kind of minor drama is a source of major excitement.

Table Manners

The first play in the trilogy is a rather more sophisticated version of The Good Life. The game is rather given away by the presence of Penelope Keith and Richard Briers, although in this case they are husband-and-wife.

The Felicity Kendal part is played very convincingly by Penelope Wilton as lonely, dizzy Annie, the cause of all of the trouble around which the comedy is based.

She is a clever, practical woman who has been left in the family home looking after her disabled mother. Her only companion is a stupendously boring vet called Tom, played by the outstanding David Troughton. By the end, his every appearance has the ability to raise a laugh, which he achieves with a technique that is apparently almost effortless.

In a bid for a little happiness, Annie tries to embark on an affair with her brother-in-law Tom Conti's shaggy Norman, a lonely comedian married to Ruth, a powerful businesswoman played by Fiona Walker.

House-sitting for the weekend are Sarah and Annie's brother Reg (Miss Keith and Briers) who have their own bickering to do. She is a desperately overstressed housewife and mother while he is a jovial, if rather irritating estate agent.

With these ingredients, Ayckbourn whips up a brisk and often extremely funny comedy that also becomes poignant, as each of the women cracks up to a greater or lesser extent.

The highlight is a dinner that allows the simmering tensions to explode, despite initial promises from all parties that they will guarantee to maintain the peace.

Living Together

It is not until you get into the second play of the trilogy that you realise that The Norman Conquests was one of Ayckbourn's more interesting experiments with form.

In Living Together, the time span is exactly the same as for Table Manners. The events and relationships are merely viewed from a different perspective.

As it develops, one begins to understand why certain seemingly inexplicable reactions in the first play make perfect sense with full knowledge. The audience's understanding of the characters also deepens considerably as the dandelion wine flows freely.

In particular, Tom, a man for whom a "knock knock" joke will always be impenetrable, is proved to be a veritable Malvolio, especially when he is egged on by his own Sir Toby Belch, Norman.

There are still moments of great humour, although this is the weakest of the three plays. Even so, seeing Penelope Keith as the tactless Sarah wielding her own peculiar brand of Englishness is great fun, only topped by Ruth's splendid explosion at a predatory husband, looking far from sexy in a pinny.

Round and Round the Garden

The final play is considerably more contemplative than its predecessors, as it explores Ayckbourn's favourite subject, the minutiae of middle-class existence.

By the end, having covered the same weekend for a third time, the playwright has presented rounded portraits of all six family members.

At this point, one can understand why both Annie and her cat hide from Tom; Reg and Sarah rarely see eye-to-eye; and despite his philandering, Ruth stays with Norman.

Compared to the other two men, Norman is sex on legs, even if he looks rather like a "haystack". By the end of his weekend he has missed out on a trip to East Grinstead with Annie but has brought a smile to the faces of all three of his conquests.

The Norman Conquests shows Ayckbourn at his best, looking at ordinary people from other angles and exploring theatrical form. Both the first and third plays are frequently hilarious and, in the latter, he joins the dots that he had already created to make these people come alive.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher