Credit: Joan Marcus

The Norman Conquests

To see or not to see the entire trilogy…that is the question. You won’t offend Alan Ayckbourn if you don’t see every part (Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden); he constructed each 1973 comedy as a stand-alone evening: ”Any suggestion that it was essential to see all three plays to appreciate any one of them would probably result in no audience at all,” he says in the preface to Conquests‘ published edition. Will you want to see all of them? Given this smashing revival imported from London’s Kevin Spacey-run Old Vic Theatre, the answer is an unqualified yes.

The perfection of Conquests‘ construction isn’t evident until you view all three — each a slice of a single weekend-in-the-country life cut from three spots (a dining room, lounge, and garden). For proof of the trilogy’s expert craftsmanship, read them in sequence, as Ayckbourn wrote them: Begin with scene 1 of Round and Round the Garden, then scene 1 of Table Manners, then scene 1 of Living Together, and so on. You’ll find yourself flipping between the scripts mid-scene when actions occur simultaneously. It’s masterful — an impenetrable dramaturgical fortress. Not a crack to be found. (The British author’s easy way with a laugh, not to mention his sheer productivity — the 70-year-old has penned 72 full-length plays — often belies his skill.)

Similarly, only upon the completion of the trilogy is the depth of these six characters revealed. First off, there’s the cad Norman (British TV star Stephen Mangan, delightfully cheeky and wonderfully self-effacing, particularly when wearing perilously short white tennis shorts). He’s married to the strikingly attractive but nearly blind Ruth (Amelia Bullmore); he has planned a weekend getaway with her frumpier but still alluring sibling Annie (Jessica Hynes, of Spaced fame); and he has somehow lit a fire inside her ice-queen sister-in-law Sarah (Amanda Root). Meanwhile, Sarah’s henpecked husband, Reg (Paul Ritter), mucks about, amused; Annie’s socially inept suitor Tom (Ben Miles, star of the U.K.’s Coupling) putters around, mostly unaware of who’s sleeping with whom. (Of course, this is a veterinarian who can’t seem to catch the family’s unnamed cat. The poor man keeps calling out for ”pussy.”) The top-drawer cast was assembled by Matthew Warchus, who also helmed this season’s expertly orchestrated God of Carnage.

All of these antics are made infinitely more amusing by the fact that Norman is not exactly the ”Greek god” he fancies himself. Shaggy-haired, bug-eyed, beard badly in need of trimming, perpetually disheveled, he’s more, as Annie says in Round and Round the Garden, ”a badly built haystack.” Or ”an old English sheepdog.” (Actually, that’s only one of many canine comparisons Norman conjures. He’s frequently found splayed out on the floor, or scuttling about on all fours, or generally begging to be petted/scratched/cuddled. ”He really only jumps up at people who encourage him,” Ruth says later to an indignant Sarah. ”It’s a general rule, if you don’t want him licking your face, don’t offer him little tidbits.”)

Each play sheds light on one of Norman’s conquests: Garden shows Norman’s genuine affection for Annie — dismissed, scoffed at, and trampled on by Sarah in Table Manners. The depth of Ruth and Norman’s connection is displayed — on the floor, on a brown faux-fur rug — in Living Together. Manners binds Norman and Sarah together — figuratively and literally (it’s breakfast, there’s jam, you get the picture…). As a result, which play you see first will greatly affect your opinion of all the characters — but especially Norman, and how much sympathy you have for this very flawed character. If you’re seeing all three, I recommend starting off with Garden. It gives you the beginning and the ending, then sketches a design of the rest; the order of the remaining two plays, which fill in the blanks with equal skill, doesn’t really matter. On Saturdays, you can see the trilogy straight through: Manners at 11:30, Living at 3:30, Garden at 8. (A fine option, though by the time Norman arrives — even more obnoxious than his pajamas — the deck is stacked rather highly against him.) Avoid, however, seeing Living first; the final scene needs a bit of plot from either of the other plays.

We realize that not everyone has upwards of $300 and seven and a half hours to spare — so if you’re seeing only one show, make it Garden. It may not be the most knee-slapping, uproariously funny of the bunch — personally, I adored the claws-out abandonment of Living — but it’s the sharpest snapshot. And, given its outdoor setting, Garden is the most Ayckbournesque. But, honestly, any of the three entries gives you a generous glimpse into a gleefully torrid little world. Three plays, six characters…infinite possibilities. A

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The Norman Conquests
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