It is a strange sensation to see the auditorium of the Old Vic completely reconfigured; to see audience members sitting behind the proscenium arch where the stage should be. But it is testament to Matthew Warchus’s production of Alan Ayckbourn’s triptych, The Norman Conquests, that once the action starts, the striking new layout of this historical venue is soon forgotten.
The premise behind Ayckbourn’s comedies, written in 1973 and given their first London revival in more than three decades, is that each of the three plays – Table Manners, Living Together and Round And Round The Garden – tells the story of a weekend from the perspective of a single living area of the country home Annie shares with her mother – dining room, living room and garden.
Annie has planned a weekend away to give herself a break from caring for her ill mother. Her brother Reg and wife Sarah are taking on caring duties, while her close friend Tom is essentially part of the furniture; he has the charisma and quick-thinking of a sideboard. When brother-in-law Norman turns up, things start to come apart at the seams.
Viewed separately, each play within The Norman Conquests tells a complete story, but watched together, they interrelate in such a way that punch lines run between them and plotlines and character understanding runs much deeper.
At the heart of the tale is Norman. Spending half his time in an oversized suit or a bobble hat in the middle of summer, in the hands of Stephen Mangan he is a big, hairy overgrown child; bouncy, excitable and enthusiastic, with an insatiable urge to make everyone happy. The old saying that you can’t please all of the people all of the time certainly applies to him, especially when he tries to achieve this by seducing his wife and both sisters-in-law in the space of three days.
But this is not the Mangan show, and while Norman is the architect of much of the conflict, bringing three dysfunctional relationships together, much like a box of fireworks, doesn’t need much of a spark to set off all manner of explosions.
All of Ayckbourn’s men have childish qualities: Paul Ritter’s Reg is the guy in the office you try to avoid, the unfunny jokester who spends his time geekishly inventing games; Ben Miles’s Tom, possibly the most sympathetic character in the plays, stumbles hopelessly around expressing his emotions. You suspect he just needs mothering and telling that everything is alright, but maybe that is what made him an emotional recluse in the first place.
Jessica Hynes gives Annie the look of a woman for whom hope is evaporating before her very eyes, occasionally lashing out against it, but mostly looking on unable to bring an end to it. Amanda Root has more than a touch of Felicity Kendal about her as the prim and proper Sarah, but with eyes that seem to accuse everyone they gaze upon of some crime against decency or another.
Amelia Bullmore as Norman’s wife Ruth is cold and harsh, occasionally thawing. In her performance the reasons for Norman’s dalliances become clearer, unless, of course, it is those dalliances that have forced her to create her cool exterior. She doesn’t have children, we are told, but married to Norman, why would she need to?
Director Warchus proves again that he has the touch for West End comedy. The director of the long-running Art and recent hit revival Boeing Boeing, picks his pacing cleverly, allowing long, uncomfortable pauses and seamless shifts between combative humour and touching, heartfelt emotion.
At the finale of yesterday’s day of press performances, Old Vic Artistic Director Kevin Spacey brought Ayckbourn to the stage to receive his applause, before knocking the playwright over in a celebratory hug. Judging from the audience’s effusive reaction, he was not the only one bowled over at the Old Vic.