|Stephen Mangan in The Norman Conquests|
Review Round-up: Old Vic Norman Conquers Critics
Date: 7 October 2008
Critics got to experience all three plays in Matthew Warchus’ revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1973 comic trilogy The Norman Conquests at the Old Vic yesterday (7 October), after celebrities had their first glimpse at last week’s gala performance (See 1st Night Photos, 3 Oct 2008).
The trilogy is played out in three different areas of the house - Table Manners in the dining room, Living Together in the living room and Round and Round the Garden in the garden – with the action of each occurring simultaneously. Believing it his mission in life to make women happy by showering them with love, Norman makes the most of every opportunity to seduce his sister-in-law Annie, charm his brother-in-law Reg’s wife Sarah and woo his wife Ruth during a disastrous weekend.
At the Old Vic – where the auditorium has been specially reconfigured in-the-round to recreate the intimacy of the original staging of the comedies – Stephen Mangan plays Norman alongside Amelia Bullmore, Jessica Hynes, Amanda Root, Ben Miles and Paul Ritter. The production is directed by Matthew Warchus and designed by Rob Howell. The three plays run in rep at the Old Vic until 20 December 2008.
Overnight critics were rapturous about the revival of “a comic masterpiece of the late twentieth century”, and in awe of the “ingeniously reconfigured” Old Vic auditorium. Of the three plays, Table Manners was highlighted by some as the jewel in the crown, with “few scenes in modern comedy to rival” its set-piece dinner scene. The cast, particularly Stephen Mangan’s “shaggy Lawrentian” take on Norman, were roundly praised and considered equal to their famous predecessors. And most agreed that this trilogy constitutes one of the year’s stand-out theatrical experiences – “a staging of almost continuous pleasure”.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) – “It is now possible to look at Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests … and proclaim a comic masterpiece of the late twentieth century … I have not seen the trilogy since Eric Thompson’s production at the Globe (now the Gielgud) 35 years ago, and comparisons are odious. Whereas Tom Courtenay was an ethereal, oddly messianic Norman, the libidinous assistant librarian who sets out to seduce both his sisters-in-law and even his own myopic wife while getting plastered on parsnip wine, Stephen Mangan’s Norman, earthier and more thumpingly physical, is an almost tragic emotional misfit in a household of suburban suffocation … There’s an odd theory that Ayckbourn’s plays got bleaker with time. But his comedy was tinged with cold grey from the start, and the scathing irruption of marital bickering and name-calling we get in the famous dinner scene makes Strindberg look quite a jolly fellow … Undoubtedly one of the year’s highlights, an unforgettable experience.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Although Matthew Warchus' production is often explosively funny, I was reminded this time of the trilogy's Chekhovian undertow. However much we laugh, the plays actually deal with loneliness, frustration, familial tensions and thwarted lust … Ayckbourn's talent for conjuring laughter out of pain is seen at its best in Table Manners. There are few scenes in modern comedy to rival a fractious family dinner in which tempers are violently lost while the hapless Tom sits on a low-slung chair with his head protruding over the table … Even if the temperature drops slightly in Round and Round the Garden, we are privy to an astonishing incremental display of familial solitude. And the catalyst is the lecherous Norman, well played by Stephen Mangan as a shaggy Lawrentian satyr. But he in no way dominates a superb cast. Amanda Root beautifully suggests that Sarah's control-freakery is the product of deep sexual frustration while Paul Ritter as the safari-suited Reg shows a man trapped inside his adolescent, hobby-filled dreams. And Amelia Bullmore's Ruth vividly emerges as a victim of the work-ethic.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (five stars) – “Alan Ayckbourn has always had two main strengths. He takes high-level risks with comedy, darkening it where he can. He takes technical chances, too, setting himself daunting dramatic puzzles and solving them with maximum bravura. But after sitting through eight hours of Ayckbourn yesterday, and seeing the events of one fraught weekend as they occur more or less simultaneously in a dining room, a living room and a garden — well, I left Matthew Warchus’ fine revival feeling that the sage of Scarborough has written little if anything more ambitious, daring and emotionally punchy than his 1974 trilogy The Norman Conquests … There are occasional longueurs, especially in the garden play, but they have a Chekhovian feel, with Annie’s unspoken wistfulness or Sarah’s sexual frustration quietly apparent. Anyway, you’ll admire the skill which makes an entrance in one play an exit in another and vice versa. And you’ll laugh. A lot.”
Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “It's so easy to underestimate Alan Ayckbourn. The fact that his plays tend to be comedies focusing on the beleaguered suburban middle classes does not preclude the revelation of profound, uncomfortable truths about the human condition. This assured revival of his masterful 1973 trilogy, showing in London for the first time in 34 years, usefully reminds us to take the laughter very seriously … There’s lovely work from Hynes as the dishevelled Annie, left by her siblings to care for their bedbound mother. Ritter, all tight slacks, gives the standout turn in the unshowy role of Reg, the archetypal henpecked Seventies husband with the razor-sharp beak. It’s Mangan who upsets the delicate acting equilibrium with his overgrown puppy of a Norman. For us to make it successfully through to Monday morning, we need to know more than he reveals about the motivation for Norman’s amorous kamikaze act.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “There are many blissful moments in these three plays, concerning a family gathering in a crumbling country house that left me physically helpless with hilarity. But the humour in Ayckbourn is rarely simple, and often dark … There is actually little to choose between Ayckbourn and Strindberg or Beckett when it comes to pessimism apart from the fact that Ayckbourn has the better jokes … Matthew Warchus' sharply observed production, staged in the round in an ingeniously reconfigured Old Vic auditorium, finds all the strengths of these terrific plays with the help of an outstanding cast. There were moments when I wanted to climb on stage and strangle Stephen Mangan's horribly pleased-with-himself Norman … And though her part is underdeveloped, Amelia Bullmore has some hilarious moments as Norman's sharp but myopic wife. Back in the Seventies, Penelope Keith, Felicity Kendal, Michael Gambon and Tom Courtenay were among those who starred in The Norman Conquests. This outstanding new company matches their achievement in a staging of almost continuous pleasure.”
- by Theo Bosanquet
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