BOTTOM LINE: A thoughtful, well-written trilogy, The Norman Conquests gets funnier, and more profound, the more you see.
The Norman Conquests is a trilogy by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn; written in 1973, this production is a transfer of the revival at London’s Old Vic theatre last year. The three plays all take place in one Victorian house in England over the course of a July weekend. Each play is set in a different room: Round and Round the Garden takes place in the garden, Table Manners takes place in the dining room, and Living Together takes place in the sitting room. While the plays show different times during this weekend, there are chronological overlaps, which means that sometimes, when a character leaves one room in one play, he or she appears in another room in another play. (I actually checked my watch on occasion, to see if, according to the times given for each scene, the exits and entrances actually match up in real time. They don’t- sometimes there is a delay of 10 or 20 minutes. But it is close enough so that you don’t notice unless you’re as anal as I am).
Each play deals with the same six characters. Annie lives in the house, and takes care of her mother upstairs (who we never see). Tom lives next door, and may or may not be in love with Annie. Annie’s two siblings are Reg and Ruth. Annie has asked Reg and his wife Sarah to come take care of their mother for the weekend so that Annie can go on holiday; the secret (soon revealed to everyone) is that the holiday is with Norman, who is married to Annie’s sister Ruth. There isn’t much more to the set-up; the three plays are basically concerned with the complex relationships between these six people; much of the focus centers around Norman, who just wants to be loved- by all three women.
I’ll admit- this premise sounded hokey and way-too played out when I first heard it. And I haven’t been a huge fan of Ayckbourn’s plays in the past- I thought The Norman Conquests might be all just a big conceit (wow- three plays that overlap- how clever!). But fortunately, there is a lot of substance here- the six characters are all incredibly complex, and the trilogy is not so much about finding out what happens (you know at the end of the first play you see), but about watching how it happens, and realizing how what at first seems complete is, on second (and third) glance just a small part of the picture.
Director Matthew Warchus (who also directed God of Carnage this season, and Boeing Boeing last season) is largely responsible for the hilarity that ensues- he paces each play extremely well, balancing spurts of quick comedy with moments of quiet contemplation and tension. Warchus gets a lot out of physical movement; the six actors use their bodies in interesting ways, and a lot of the character development is communicated by posture and gesture. While not exactly slapstick, this is nevertheless very physical comedy at times, and all the more hilarious for that reason. But Warchus is also not afraid of silence, which makes The Norman Conquests more than just an uproarious laugh fest. These six characters are all profoundly unhappy, and the entire trilogy might be summarized as their search for happiness.
If there is a leading role, it is Norman; played by Stephen Mangan, Norman is incredibly normal-looking for a man-whore, and he often borders on downright unappealing. He is not well-dressed, not in good shape, and needs a shave- all of which makes his seductive powers that much more interesting to watch. Amelia Bullmore plays Ruth, Norman’s wife, a woman who hates wearing her glasses- her attempts to set up her chair in the garden are a high point in Round and Round the Garden. Paul Ritter is Reg, who fights constantly with his wife Sarah, played by Amanda Root. Jessica Hynes is Annie, who is clearly exhausted and looks like she hasn’t brushed her hair in months. My favorite actor was Ben Miles, who plays Tom, a rather dim vet who often seems more concerned with Annie’s cat than he is with Annie herself. All six actors are excellent, and their ensemble work together is as good as their individual performances. Each character is strengthened by comparisons with the others; for example, as we learn more about the insufficiencies of Tom and Reg, we understand more why Norman, despite his physical appearance, is such a tempting alternative for Annie and Sarah.
The plays are staged in the round, so any seat in the house is fine. I’d suggest seats on the “sides” of the oval (the 200 sections) or else near the stage. I saw each of the play’s first NY preview performance, so the sound may improve, but there were times when the audience was laughing so loud that I couldn’t hear a few lines. But judging by the laughter, I’d say The Norman Conquests will appeal to many people- it is very definitely a series of three comedies, albeit comedies with some serious, poignant moments.
So now for the important questions: do you need to see all three plays? If you only see one, which one should you see? And if you’re seeing all three, does it help to see them in a certain order?
I saw Round and Round the Garden first, then Table Manners, and then Living Together. You don’t need to see all three plays- each stands well on its own. However, I appreciated Round and Round the Garden more once I saw Table Manners, and while I probably enjoyed Table Manners the best, this may not mean everyone will. It is just as likely that I liked Table Manners so much because I already knew these characters from Round and Round the Garden, but the characters still had more surprises than they had for me in Living Together. Which means, someone who sees all three might like the second play the best, whichever one that is. Or not. So if you just want to see one because you want to have some idea of what people are talking about, I’d say it is a toss-up- see whichever one fits your schedule the best, or whichever one you can get the best seat for.
That said, if you’re interested enough to see one, I’d suggest that you consider seeing all three. Although you might expect the three plays to become repetitive, since they all cover the same characters in the same situations, they are anything but repetitive. In fact, the plays somehow become better, and even funnier, as you see more. For example, once you see Ruth squinting around in one play, you start laughing the minute she walks on stage in the next play. If you decide to see all three, one option is the “Trilogy Day”- Table Manners at 11 AM, Living Together at 3 PM, and Round and Round the Garden at 8 PM. This might suggest that this is the “preferred order”- since this is also the order they are listed in the playbill. However, this probably has as much to do with the set demands (the garden set has a different floor than do the sitting and dining rooms) as it does with anything else.
Of course, the publicity will tell you that the plays can be seen in any order, but is this really true? For what it is worth, Round and Round the Garden both “starts” and “ends” the play- its first scene happens first in time (5:30 PM on a Saturday), and its last scene happens last (Monday at 9 AM). So I guess an argument could be made for seeing this one either first or last. But ultimately, I don’t think it matters too much. Each play tells you enough about what is going on so that any play can be seen first. I’d say it is more important to try to see all three fairly close together- if all three in one day sounds too exhausting, then maybe try to see one a night for three nights. (For those who saw Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia trilogy, this is a much less daunting prospect- The Norman Conquests is not only funnier, but shorter- by about 2-3 hours.) Because the three plays that make up The Norman Conquests work by building on each other, if you see one too far apart from the other, you might forget some of the ways in which they overlap. And while this isn’t necessary for the enjoyment of any one play, it is what makes the trilogy so enjoyable. In other words, if you are going to see the trilogy, treat it as a trilogy to get the best bang for your buck.
For those who aren’t sure, there is a discount offer in the playbill; once you see one play, you can go back to the box office and buy tickets to the other two (the box office is conveniently open during intermission and after the show). So unless this discount (when I went it was $49) goes away after the trilogy opens officially on April 23rd, it would seem as if buying a ticket to one play to see if you like it doesn’t mean you will necessarily spend more money on all three than those who buy the trilogy all at once (indeed, at $49, this would seem to actually save you money). One final note- when I left Round and Round the Garden, I was somewhat ambivalent- I would have been perfectly fine just seeing that play. It was only after seeing the second play (in my case Table Manners) that I understood what I missed in the first play- so much so that I wanted to go back and see Round and Round the Garden again after I finished the trilogy. So a note of warning- you may not love the first play you see, at least, not at first.
Ultimately, The Norman Conquests is to some extent an event- there are those (myself included) who will go if only to say that we saw all three plays. But for everyone else, The Norman Conquests is still worth seeing. Yes, some on a tight budget, or in New York for a short time, might understandably prefer to spend their money and time on three unrelated plays. So I won’t say to skip everything else to see The Norman Conquests. That said, this is an extremely enjoyable trio of plays- it is thoughtful comedy, but incredibly accessible. It is a terrific production with an all-around hilarious cast, directed by one of the best comedy directors today. Good comedies are rare on Broadway, and although I haven’t seen Warchus’s other Broadway hit God of Carnage yet, I’ve heard from several people that The Norman Conquests is better written. So if you’re looking for a comedy and don’t mind missing the “stars” in God of Carnage, The Norman Conquests is worth checking out.
(The Norman Conquests plays at the Circle in the Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway, on 50th St between Broadway and 8th Avenue. The three plays are performed through July 25th, and occur on a rotating schedule, so the performance schedule varies. In general, there are shows Tue at 7 PM, Wed at 2 PM, Wed through Fri at 8 PM, and on weekends there are “Trilogy Days”, in which all three plays are performed- at 11 AM, 3 PM, and 8 PM. See normanconquestsonbroadway.com for the complete schedule. Running time for each play is approximately 2 hours 20 minutes. Tickets for one play are $107-$112, and the entire trilogy costs $256. There is also student rush for $27, available the day of the performance. Tickets are available online at telecharge.com)