Only four weeks to go before the Tony Award-winning revival of the Alan Ayckbourn trilogy The Norman Conquests ends its limited run. As the grand finale, July 25 and 26, there will be two marathons in a single weekend—which is apt since the three plays take place on a single weekend in July.
As you will have heard, the same six characters appear in every play. What varies is the location. Table Manners is set in a the dining room of a Victorian house in England, Living Together in the living room of the same house, and Round and Round the Garden—well, guess. Each play unfolds in proper chronological sequence, and while the action is occasionally synchronous, it usually is not. Any one play airs the same dirty laundry, but tone and pace differ considerably, as do nuances of character. Though Ayckbourn has always insisted that any one play is complete in itself, and that repeat customers may view them in any order, the marathon shows are always set up as listed above. They are published that way, too. (A tongue-in-cheek note from the playwright in the lobby advises playgoers to avoid seeing any of the plays first or last.)
Playgoers who have made a day of it, starting at 11:30 a.m. and heading home at 10:15 p.m. insist that the Full Monty is the only way to go. I started with a double-header on a Wednesday and came back the next week for the finale, and honestly can't believe that it mattered. I did keep to the "right" order, though, which seemed to make sense. In particular, it may help to save Round and Round the Garden for last, since it opens with the earliest scene in the sequence and ends with the last. Beginning in medias res, as the other plays do, may be more dynamic, but eventually one wants to dial back to square one, and this is the best time to do it. By the same token, it has to make sense to save the finale ultimo for last.
Arguably the playwright's masterpiece, The Norman Conquest is your classic Ayckbourn roundelay. There's the shut-in Annie, who looks after her invalid mother. There's Annie's sister Ruth, married to the loose cannon Norman, an assistant librarian. There's a third sibling, Reg, whose prissy wife Sarah hates anyone whose every movement she cannot control. And then there's Tom, the local vet, smitten with Annie but too shy to make his move. (He's better with animals than with people.) On the weekend in question, a secret tryst between Annie and Norman falls apart before they make it out the door, leading to no end of indiscretions, revelations, recriminations, and embarrassments, much of it fueled by home-made dandelion wine. "I only want to make you happy," cries Norman, who at one time or another throws himself at everyone but Tom.
Against steep competition, the production by Matthew Warchus (transferred from The Old Vic, in London) took the Tony for this season's best revival of a play. Landmark productions of the gargantuan Ayckbourn oeuvre, many of them staged by the playwright himself, have tended to show a world split between knaves and fools. In 1977, Herbert Wise directed The Norman Conquests for television in exactly this fashion, which made for three evenings of caustic hilarity. Not as caustic, however, as the play A Little Family Business, directed on Broadway by Martin Charnin, who had the audience cheering at a savage murder.
By now, the Ayckbourn smackdown has crystallized as a genre of farce unto itself. Without appearing to do so at all, Warchus has rewritten the rules, punctuating the mayhem with lulls of unexpected gentleness. Thus, in Table Manners, Sarah discovers that the dining-room set is short a chair, a casualty of wormwood or old age.
"You should get that treated," Reg suggests.
"Old age, you mean?," Annie answers sarcastically.
"Ah well, I don't know about that," Reg comes back. "Father used to say, the only thing for old age is a brave face, and good tailor and comfortable shoes. Chairs…"
As Paul Ritter delivers Reg's tiny reminiscence—in no hurry, his voice lower, almost to himself—it hints at a world of simple love and affection mostly forgotten, ignored, or trampled in the Armageddon of daily life. What a difference a grace note makes.
There are not many, but each one counts. Offhand, I remember none for Norman (Stephen Mangan) or the shrill control freak Sarah (Amanda Root). The guileless Tom (Ben Miles) has his share. But the principal purveyor, hands down, is Amelia Bullmore as Ruth. As Reg's line about his father lights up that moment in Table Manners, Bullmore's performance lights up the production.
On the page, Ruth looks pig-headed, and contrarian, and not only in her tolerance for Norman's shenanigans. (Myopic to the point of legal blindness, she refuses to wear glasses, even at the wheel of a car.) On TV the slugger Fiona Walker did the job, landing her punches with lethal efficiency. Onstage, Bullmore is another creature entirely. Faunlike in face and figure, she asks only to be left in peace to find what fragile happiness she can. Under attack, she floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. But there is a humility about her: a tremulousness each time she scores, a wistfulness without self-delusion.
One I had seen Ruth's first scene, I always missed her when she was gone. And there, come to think of it, is one reason for people who are mixing and matching to save Table Manners for last. It's the only play of the three in which Ruth enters before intermission. Act One of Round and Round the Garden is no longer than any other act of the trilogy, about an hour. But on night 3, without Ruth, it seemed to last forever.
For the calendar, visit http://www.normanconquestsonbroadway.com