One of the best things I’ve seen on stage in the last several years was the 2009 Broadway revival
of Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy, The Norman Conquests
, which featured a superb ensemble cast under the direction of Matthew Warchus. It was a magnificent show that argued for something much more substantial beneath the surface of Ayckbourn’s clever 70s comedy of manners. In the wake of this success, Acorn Media Group
is re-releasing the landmark television version of the plays
filmed under the direction of Herbert Wise in the late 1970s. After appearing both in the UK and the US, the production received an Emmy nomination as well as a BAFTA TV award for actress Penelope Keith. It's wonderful to have another look at this production now, nearly thirty years later, because it provides another layer of period context to the work as well as a chance to see some remarkable performances from great actors of a previous generation in Britain.
It’s an excellent video transfer, and anyone who has a passing interest in Ayckbourn or the time period will find something to love in this set. The Norman Conquests
is divided into three separate plays: Living Together
, Table Manners
, and Round and Round the Garden
. The events of the three plays span a weekend in the country from Saturday Morning to Monday Morning. Over the course of this time, a planned liaison between Annie, and her sister’s husband Norman, is abandoned after the arrival of Annie's brother Reg and his wife Sarah. Reg and Sarah believe they are covering for Annie who is off for an innocent weekend vacation, only to find out that there is much more going on. Soon these four are joined by the village Vet and Annie's incompetent suitor Tom as well as Norman's wife Ruth for a weekend filled with all the requisite family hostility. And while there is a definite linear flow of events, Ayckbourn has re-sorted them into three distinct parts based on which of three separate locations the events unfold in. The exists and entrances in each play directly correspond to those in the other plays, and while the storyline is clear in each of the individual parts, part of the fun in watching The Norman Conquests
is learning more about the unfolding events through the three plays' intersections.
Tom Conti as Norman
This television production has a very different feel from the recent stage revival for reasons both obvious and not. Of course any play filmed for television faces obstacles, and Wise's faithful take on the script is no exception. Perhaps most challenging is Ayckbourn’s focus on three distinct sets. Each play’s action unfolds over two hours in a single room with characters coming and going at intervals. Close-ups and changing camera angles must often take the place of actual changes of scene and being locked into a single set for each work is tougher on video than in the flesh and blood of the theater. On the other hand, there is something tougher and more serious about this filmed version. Of course it is still a comedy, but the feeling of this period view of The Norma Conquests
resembles Norman Lear at his best without sentiment and where laughs often come at the expense of some very painful domestic truths.
The ensemble cast in this three DVD set is also excellent. Penelope Keith plays the uptight Sarah to perfection against her sometimes vacant husband Reg played by Richard Briers. It’s amusing to see these two actors together after being so well known as foils in different married couples from Good Neighbors.
Annie is played by Penelope Wilton who may be more familiar to younger audiences as Harriet Jones in the most recent series of Doctor Who
or Simon Pegg’s mother in Sean of the Dead
. Annie’s would-be paramour and lover of all women, Norman, is played by a bushy-looking Tom Conti at one of the pinnacles of his career just prior to his arrival on the Hollywood scene in the early 1980s. Norman is a character with a dark-side but must also embody a certain joie de vivre which Conti manages exceedingly well. The cast is completed by David Troughton who plays Tom and Fiona Walker as Norman’s liberated wife Helen. This is a play that lives and breaths interpersonal chemistry. The Norman Conquests
is a large work that is very much worth getting to know better; and for the unexposed, this DVD release is a great way to get to know it for the first time. (And if your interested in more of Acorn's 70s British TV bonanza, they're also re-releasing the complete Upstairs, Downstairs
this month in a dramatically cleaner and better looking video transfer than the last time this landmark series saw the light of day here in the US.)