The Norman Conquests

  • Date:
    April 1, 2009
    Review by:
    Tulis McCall


    A review by Tulis McCall

    I had the most extraordinary experience last Saturday. I went on a field trip. Remember when you were in sixth grade and took a bus to New York or Boston or Milwaukee and went to the Natural History Museum, or saw a show, or went to a ball game? My trip was like that. I left home around 10 AM and spent the better part of the day in the company of the excellent cast and crew of The Norman Conquests. I recommend you do the same.

    Isn�t is amazing what happens when good writing meets up with good acting and direction?

    This is the play that Neil LaBute would write if he were ever in a good mood. This is Checkov and Strindberg on laughing gas. It is all the nitpicking misery and foolish attempts at vanity that we manufacture by being humans in the company of other humans. Everyone here shines and shames. Requests and good intentions take wing and slam into walls of glass. Moments of exquisite silence are stretched until they pop like blown glass.

    This is the story of two sisters and a brother who spin like little moons around their invalid mother. We never see the mother, we only see her progeny, and that is quite enough. Annie (Jessica Hynes) has drawn the short straw and has full time duty because she is single, steady, frowzy and lacking the sense to move away. On this weekend in question, however, Annie does have plans not only to get out of Dodge, but do it in the company of a m-a-n. She has enlisted the innocent aid of her woefully married brother Reg (Paul Ritter) and his tightly wound wife Sarah (Amanda Root) who drive up from the city to take over for the weekend. Neither of them knows of the clandestine nature of Annie�s getaway, which is a good thing because the man she is swanning off with is Norman (Stephen Mangan) who is the wild husband to the third sibling Ruth (Amelia Bullmore). The only one not related to this quintet is Tom, the vague and dim vet who has been mooning around Annie for a few years like a village pet.

    Before Annie can leave she spills the beans to Sarah. This confession is the catalyst for all that is to come, because it turns out that there is more than one person who is on the receiving end of Norman�s conquesting energies. In the severe and strict atmosphere of this family, Norman is single handedly carrying the banner of non-linear thinking. Logic is a two-syllable word that this assistant librarian can define but with which he has a strained relationship. His wife, Ruth, is the lynchpin to his position in the family, and she has not left him because she is fond of him. She is so fond that rather than remedy her nearsightedness with contacts, she instead goes without, running the risk of injury no doubt, because being with Norman causes too many sudden eye movements. He is rather like an unruly dog that should not be let off his leash, else he will knock someone down in an exuberant leap. She is more his foster mother than his wife.

    Norman has not rubbed off on Ruth so much that she is free of her genetics. When the siblings all gather, no good can come of it. Even when they try. Sarah must control everything because she can control nothing. Reg drags himself through his life with blinders on. His wife and children are a mystery, and the only refuge he has is in the creation of board games, all of which have rules so odd and intricate they thwart even the most dedicated player. Ruth lives a brittle life under duress and is only certain of an object�s identity when she is nose to nose with it. And Annie is the embodiment of quiet desperation, joined to her mother at the hip and wondering how she got there.

    Ayckborn (the author of 71 plays) gives us the bird�s eye view of this very slow car crash, and with the grace of a ballet dancer, he then returns to the scene of the crime twice more. In each of the three plays we see the weekend�s events unravel from three different vantage points: the dining room, the living room and the garden. What was a face in one play becomes a back in the next. Exits become entrances. Conquests become retreats.

    Extraordinary service is done to the text under the direction of Matthew Warchus. He trusts the story and the actors� instincts. Focus is tossed back and forth like an inflatable ball on the beach. Physical comedy, abandoned rage and intimate revelations are the stuff these actors handle like so many crepes being flipped by expert hands. Add to this the sorry sartorial splendor that was the 1970�s and you have a masterpiece.

    Well done indeed. If you can�t get to all three on a marathon Saturday, just pick one and go go go!

    Tulis McCall


    A Review by Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus.

    "The Norman Conquests" is about a bloke named Norman and his conquests -- women in general, his estranged wife and two sisters-in-law, in particular. And he's not even that good looking. But the bloke has something.

    Alan Ayckbourn has conquered American audiences with this English trilogy: three full length plays, six characters, and one wild weekend. Each play takes place in a different location in one house, and all three are happening simultaneously. There's action, quite literally, in the garden, in the dining room, and the living room, and if a character walks out of one location, he's about to walk into another.

    Norman is an assistant librarian, his workaholic and myopic wife Ruth, is a financial wizard and the family's breadwinner. Her non-descript brother Reg is married to the uptight and compulsively neat Sarah. And the frumpy younger sister Annie, is in love with the local dimwitted vet who is clueless about Annie's feelings.

    So there you have it. Six characters who have found a play, or rather three plays, and they are hilarious as they sort out their relationships in the rundown Victorian country house of their ailing and cantankerous Mother. With the much-maligned Mother ensconced in an off-stage upper floor, the reasons these siblings and spouses have reunited are revealed, of course, Norman is at the center.

    Set in three different parts of the house, each play picks up on a conversation that was referenced in one of the other scenes in one of the other locations, and we're witness to it all. This "fly-on-the-wall" aspect allows us to inspect the underpinnings of all the relationships, what gives Norman his uncanny seductive prowess, and why he has a narcissistic need to "make everyone happy."

    Norman is referred to as everything from "a leader of men" to a "barnyard dog." Disheveled and unassuming, Stephen Mangan as Norman possesses a teddy-bear charm and explosive sex appeal as well as provocative insight into the underlying unhappiness of the people around him. As frustrations fester, so does the physicality of the action.

    Dressing for dinner in his dead father-in-law's ill-fitting suit, Norman takes his place around the dinner table in "Table Manners" to share the paltry fixings with his distant wife and in-laws. Of course, the seating takes some time as Sarah fervently tries to put each one in a particular place. Pauses are potent as they pass the plates. Poor Tom is seated in an undersized chair and is the butt of Norman's rapidly fired barbs in this unforgettable scene.

    Equally farcical are Ruth's attempts at relaxation in "Round and Round the Garden." Refusing to wear her glasses, her inability to unfold a lawn chair speaks volumes about her inflexibility, as we convulse in laughter at the resulting compromised position she must then assume to find comfort. But we see that even Norman's blatant infidelity can't keep her away from her husband for long.

    Perhaps, the bitter arguments that ensue in "Living Together" provide the clearest insights into the makeup of these couples, but a drunk Norman still has the upper hand as he gives advice to Tom and anyone else who'll listen. And the worn living room rug has its own tale to tell.

    The ensemble cast, which just won an Outer Critics Circle award, has impeccable timing and resiliency. Mangan and Amelia Bullmore are the ostensible leads, but each member is spotlighted in turn. Director Matthew Warchus, who has made a name for himself interpreting Yasmina Reza's plays including "God of Carnage," understands farce and the physical side of comedy.

    Using the theater-in-the-round keeps "The Norman Conquests" as close to its original intent as possible. As each character leaves the stage to go into the other room, we can't wait to pick up where they left off. See all three, preferably all in one day, if you can. It's marathon theatergoing that goes by faster than an English conquest.

    Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus



    What the press had to say.....

    "crippling you with laughter that shakes the body and, more subversively, fractures the soul." & "If you see only one of these plays, which should it be? Let me put it this way: You can�t lose with any one, but you win big if you go to all three."
    Ben Brantley
    New York Times

    "Unbridled libido makes for uncontrollable laughter"
    Joe Dziemianowicz
    New York Daily News

    "sprinkling magic dust all over Broadway."
    Barbara Hoffman
    New York Post

    "titillating revelations as funny as they are serious"
    John Simon
    Bloomberg

    "a heavy commitment for such light entertainment" Linda Winner
    NewsDay

    "Rarely have I heard such explosive laughter rock a theatre with such regularity."
    Erik Haagensen
    Back Stage

    "My only complaint is that the audience was in such a constant state of merriment that a line sometimes couldn't be heard."
    Robert Feldberg
    The Record

    "Seldom has a comedy crossed our shores that produced the kind of gut splitting laughter heard in Alan Ayckbourn's masterful "The Norman Conquests." "
    Roma Torre
    NY1

    "seriously funny, as well as a comically serious"
    Michael Kuchwara
    Associated Press

    "deeply moving -- as well as uproariously funny"
    Frank Scheck
    Hollywood Reporter

    "delivers more laughs than ought to be legal"
    David Rooney
    Variety