A Weekend in the Country

Saturday was one of those perfect days that will linger long in my memory for a variety of reasons. I was down in the city for a marathon of The Norman Conquests and had the added pleasure of spending my day in between shows and intermissions with the Brian Williams of theatre bloggers, Steve on Broadway and his partner Doug. Between the first two plays, we had a light lunch at Pigalle, where we reveled in what we had seen in the first play, excited for what was to come. My thanks to both for their company throughout the entire day and also for introducing me to the wine bar Clo located in the Time Warner building (4th floor, for you lushes out there!) In between the good times we were having with food and wine (and of course, the witty conversation), there was the good time being had by all of us at the Circle in the Square Theatre.

Truth be told, I knew very little of The Norman Conquests when I first heard of this revival. In fact, it wasn’t until I saw the marquee that I had even known that the Old Vic revival was coming to NY.

So in deciding to undertake a Saturday marathon of Alan Ayckbourn’s brilliant “trilogy of plays,” little did I realize I would be experiencing a series of firsts. I had never before seen any of Alan Ayckbourn’s works. I had never attended a full-day marathon of theatre. I had never before seen any production presented truly in the round. And I had never before seen the movements of chess pieces so beautifully excoriated before in my entire life. There was some slight trepidation at the idea of committing myself to three successive plays, especially if I didn’t like the first one I was pretty much committed to endure the rest. As the action in act one, scene one began I settled in comfortably. The writing is immediately sharp and witty, before I even knew what was going on I had this innate feeling settle in me that I was going to enjoy the experience. I just didn’t realize at that point just how much I was going to love it.

The Norman Conquests is not a Coast of Utopia-like retelling of the events leading up to and around 1066, but is about Norman and his dysfunctional family consisting of his wife, her sister, their brother, the brother’s wife and a dim veterinarian who is in love with the sister. (Got it?) There is an offstage gorgon of a mother who is never seen but whose colorful past has had quite an impact on the three blood siblings.

Each play is concurrent with one another. When an actor leaves a scene he or she is generally making an entrance into another play that has already been seen or will be seen. Table Manners, the suggested first play in the trilogy, is located in the dining room. Living Together shows the action in the living room and Round and Round the Garden, the suggested finale of the evening takes place in the lawn.

Without giving too much away, because discovering the complexities of the plot and characters is one of the joys of experience, Norman is a lazy assistant librarian who frustrates and titillates all around him. Over the course of a weekend, harrowing truths are exposed, outrageous sexual romps take place and certain familial chaos ensues.

The play is anchored by one of the most superb ensembles I have ever had the privilege to watch onstage – each performance an epic win. The bearded, wild-maned Stephen Mangan, in an inspired tour de force performance is the slovenly yet lovable yet ribald solipsist cad Norman, whose libido knows no bounds. The catalyst of action is the initial plan for Norman and his sister-in-law Annie to go for a salacious holiday at the scandalous East Grinstead. Needless to say, no one goes anywhere the entire weekend. That’s when the fun starts. Mangan, with seemingly limitless energy takes Norman to outrageous heights in a memorable turn that in my humble opinion deserves the Tony. For a visual: Think of him as Sasha Baron Cohen doing The Ruling Class. The funniest performance by an actor in NY since Mark Rylance in Boeing Boeing. Ben Miles is the sad sack veterinarian Tom, who is an unfailingly loyal – if chaste – companion. His earnest demeanor, and slow to act responses (a scene with him in a miniature chair at the dinner table is worth the price of admission) as well as his being the only innately good character (he’s dull to the characters in the play, but never to us in the audience). So impressionable was he that his entrance at the top of the third play warranted applause. Paul Ritter is Reg, Annie’s brother, a rather likable if bland person who is married to Sarah and whose hobby is inventing ridiculously complicated games that no one (especially his wife) likes to play. One of the many highlights of the play is his tirade against the absurdity of chess movements.

Onto the ladies: Amanda Root, in a stunning turn, is the harried Sarah, the busy-body sister in law with her own agenda who is best described as a soul sister to Veronica in God of Carnage. Root, looking like Brenda Blethyn and sounding exactly like Judi Dench gets some of the best moments of the three plays, and some of the biggest laughs with her exasperating performance. The delightfully original Jessica Hynes, who I recognized from a brief role in Shaun of the Dead, is Annie, the unkempt spinster who is forced to look after mother (soul sister to Ivy Weston perhaps?) and is exasperated in her loneliness and in Tom’s chastity. Rounding out the cast is Amelia Bullmore as Ruth, Norman’s work-obsessed wife, who for the sake of pure vanity refuses to wear her eyeglasses. Bullmore has the most physical comedy bits – watching her tackle a lawn chair in the third play was one of the many original, truly laugh out loud hilarious moments offered. Together, all six create one of the most vibrant ensembles I have ever seen in my life. If there is an argument for a Tony award for Best Ensemble Cast, I offer these six organic, interwoven characterizations as exhibit A.

Each situation and character is so grounded in his or her reality (even the oblivious Norman), that there is nothing but total validity in the onstage action. From the pure British comedy of Table Manners to the darker, pensive tones of Living Together and the farcical chaos of Round and Round, these are characters that are fully realized, whose lives are anchored in such melancholy which in effect only makes the plays funnier. Much of the credit belongs to Matthew Warchus. He took a weak farce like Boeing Boeing and turned it into the must-see comedy of last season, winning the show the Tony for Best Revival and Best Actor in a Play for Rylance. He is also responsible for the helming the juggernaut hit God of Carnage, another spectacular comedy tour de force, firmly establishing himself as the di rigueur director of stage comedy in both London and New York. He’s competing against himself for the Tony this year, but I hope his magnanimous work on The Norman Conquests will edge out for the win.

The designers revel in the period setting of the play – the 1970s. The furniture, the costumes and hairdos are all throwbacks to a more garish time in pop culture, with wonderful use of the limited space to accomplish so much. There is a miniature of a country house and town that hovers above the set prior to each act, creating a clever “curtain.” As it is raised, there is a complete replica of the same miniature upside down. There are some dangers, some wine got splashed into the crowd, popped buttons flew out like bullets and most amusingly, during a game of catch a ball flew out into the crowd, where an audience member actually caught it and immediately just tossed it back. Amused but unfazed, the actors just carried right on as the ball was given back to them by the appreciative crowd.

I feel like I have to weigh in my $.02 on the suggestion that you can see any and/or all the plays in no particular order. Having seen the plays in the suggested order (Ayckbourn claims the order came out of necessity not intent), I must say it proves most beneficial to see them starting with Table Manners, which establishes most of the characters, then to see Living Together with greater intensity, followed by Round and Round the Garden. The experience of the final play hinges greatly on what you have seen prior for total effect as it in essence ties together the loose ends, with some of the biggest surprises in the entire text. If you have a Saturday available to you, go for it. Table Manners begins at 11:30AM, Living Together at 3:30PM and finally Round and Round the Garden at 8PM. If you can only see just one, you should see… no wait, I think it’s imperative to see all three. Regardless of the fact that they have been written to stand alone, the overlying arc of the entire trilogy has an immensely exhilarating payoff. I didn’t think of it so much as seeing three different plays, but more like an extensive three act play set over the course of seven and a half hours. And I could have sat for another seven and half hours more with this cast and these incredible characters.

The Norman Conquests is hands down the best thing I have seen all season. It is also one of the most thrilling theatrical experiences I’ve ever had in my life, adding it to my top three alongside the opening nights of The Light in the Piazza and August: Osage County. Of all the theatre I’ve seen recently – and it’s been quite a lot, this is the production that best exemplifies why I love the experience in the first place.

Now, who wants to do another marathon with me?

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