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Norman, My Love

April 30, 2009

The cast of The Norman Conquests
Photo: Manuel Harlan 2009

There is more than one multi-day episodic theatrical event going on in New York right now. While the Metropolitan Opera is in the midst of their rather sleepy revival of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, there is a far more exciting large time commitment going on at the Circle in the Square Theater on 50th Street. It's a new production of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, a British import from London’s Old Vic Theater that involves three separate plays running about 2 and a half hours each - Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden. What’s most interesting is how much The Norman Conquests has in common with Wagner’s Ring Cycle in the end. True the Ring is steeped in Norse mythology and Conquests is a 1970s sex comedy, but otherwise they couldn’t be more similar. Regardless of outer appearances, at their core, both works are really very precise and enthralling studies of family dynamics. Ayckbourn’s plays are very, very funny – often to the point of tears. But they are also very serious in their dissection of the pain and inner workings of three couples (two married and one not) each containing one adult sibling from the same family. Also like Wagner’s opus, after sitting through seemingly endless hours in the theater, you end up leaving wanting it all not to end or at least to see even more from these characters that you feel you’ve come to know.

Ayckbourn has always had a preoccupation with structural games in his plays and the conceit here is that the 12 scenes in the plays occur over a single weekend in an English country home in one of three rooms. The plays are divided up based on which room each scene takes place in, but all three plays cover the whole weekend. The entrances and exits of characters in one play directly correspond to their arrival or departure in the next. While each of the plays stands on its own with the same general narrative, each fleshes out scenes that are only referred to or imagined by the audience during the others. Seeing them together as I have over this week is most satisfying not in that it unravels a narrative mystery (since there is none really), but because you get to learn more and more about these six very fractured souls and their not too uncommon ways of suffering.

Amelia Bullmore, Paul Ritter, and Amanda Root
Photo: Manuel Harlan 2009

Speaking of these six characters, their current incarnations rest in no small part in the hands of an incredible cast I will mention here by name. Jessica Hynes is Annie, left to tend her invalid mother in their country home. She is planning a weekend affair with Norman, played by Stephen Mangan, behind the back of his wife and her sister, Ruth, played by Amelia Bullmore. Of course the weekend falls apart despite the arrival of Annie’s brother Reg, played by Paul Ritter, and his very uptight wife Sarah, played by Amanda Root who are there to do the mother-sitting that is not to be. To round all this out is the neighborhood vet and Annie’s inept paramour, Tom, played by Ben Miles. Miles is perhaps best known to American audiences for his performance in the BBC television show “Coupling” where he played the sexy lothario Patrick. In Ayckbourn’s world he is cast as "against type" as possible for maximum effect. But all of the cast are superb in their ability to bring out the abundant depth in what appears to be incredibly light fare on the surface. And, of course, at the center of all this is Norman, the unbridled bubbling id in this cavalcade of neurotics. He’s as seductive to the audience as he is to everyone else in the play and despite his very real problems, it is impossible not to succumb to his charms. The subtlety of this is surprising to me even though it's all under the direction of Matthew Warchus. Warchus is behind numerous supremely funny imports in New York in recent years including the recent Boeing Boeing. But with a play in his hands that is more than just light farce, he proves he can do much more than get big laughs. So if your looking at spending 7 hours in the dark, you may want to forego the German romantic music for a change and seek out this fantastic alternative and save yourself a few bucks while your at it.



This production sounds like it was terrific. I'm an Ayckbourn fan myself, & I'm quite jealous that you managed to squeeze in all 3 parts during your New York visit. I wish I had been that organized myself.
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