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The Norman Conquests (Liverpool)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Not content with writing one play about a weekend where six members of a family meet up Sir Alan Ayckbourn comes up with three! Annie is hoping to get away for a couple of nights, a break from mother whom we never see but is still very much a presence during the plays, with brother-in-law Norman. Sarah and Reg come along to ‘mother sit’ but as this is comedy things don’t go according to plan as Annie’s ‘boyfriend’ Tom is hovering around and Norman’s wife puts in an appearance following a frantic phone call from bossy Sarah.

This may sound like the makings of farce but Ayckbourn is much too clever and subtle for that so what we are given are funny plays with some pathos, hilarious moments and watchable characters with all too recognisable faults and foibles. He captures exactly what it is like to spend a weekend with your family – plenty of friction, love, frustration, drama, shared reminiscences and hilarity.

The productions get off to a good start with the amusing radio announcements and there is a great revolving set designed by Matthew Wright which gives us glimpses of other rooms during the speedy set changes.

The plays build like a giant jigsaw and as each piece is put in we find out the answers to such perplexing issues as why does Reg pick up a waste paper bin for no reason; why does Sarah suddenly appear relaxed and happy and why does the normally dour Tom enter the dining room laughing like a hyena? For the full answers you need to see more than one play. And it is in the seeing things from more than one angle that multiplies the fun.

Laura Howard is a delightful Annie and Emily Pithon’s Ruth certainly hits the mark. As Reg Oliver Birch brings life and heartiness to his scenes and Tom Davey makes a convincing naïve vet. Sarah Tansey is bossy and snobbish but scores best in her more serious moments while Philip Cumbus manages the difficult feat of capturing Norman’s charm and his annoying traits.

This is definitely a company effort and the six hardworking actors deserve the warm applause at the end as does Philip Wilson for his taut direction that balances the real and the comic.

‘Norman’ is nearly forty years old but he is still going strong and continuing to conquer audiences with some joyous nights (and days) out.

It is impossible to recommend just one of the plays – on this showing Round and Round the Garden appears to be the most consistently funny but this is a case of ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ so you should try to see them all!

- Richard Woodward

*Liverpool’s Playhouse theatre is showing separate performances for the three plays within The Norman Conquests as well as holding ‘trilogy days’ for Table Manners, Living Together and Round and Round the Garden. For further details, visit the Everyman & Playhouse website here


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