BWW Reviews: The Norman Conquests Wins Hearts And Minds
Sir Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests is a three-part play cycle that takes place over the course of one weekend. The trilogy paints a deeply insightful portrait of six individuals bound by love, hate, trust, need, and fear. Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company is currently remounting their 2013 production, with hilarious, heartfelt results.
All three plays -Table Manners, Living Together, and Round And Round The Garden -are now onstage at the Young Centre, individually, through March 8th, when another one-day presentation of all three works will be performed.
There is no formal order in which the plays should be seen; Ayckbourn wrote them in 1973 with no particular A-B-C structure in mind. The narrative itself revolves around a family: Annie is the youngest sister in a family with two older siblings, Ruth (married to the titular Norman) and Reg, who is set to visit with his wife Sarah in order to take care of their mother for a weekend, allowing Annie a rest from her caregiving duties. Secretly, she and Norman have arranged a romantic rendezvous, following a romp on the living room carpet the Christmas before. Thought only alluded to, one senses how much this event shapes and propels much of the action, as well as the character revelations that follow. Just as noteworthy is Ayckbourn's decision not to show the siblings' mother, a figure second sister Ruth refers to as "that evil woman." With the Michael Young Theatre intimately arranged with seats surrounding the stage, the audience becomes immersed in Ayckbourn's world, recognizing the small dramas and even smaller victories, along with foibles, failings, sympathies and silent longings. We become both participant and observer in the mad, strangely familiar world of family, love, romance and relating.
Just as telling as the trilogy title are the titles of the individual works. While Table Manners takes place in a dining room and revolves around propriety and manners (or their falling away), Living Together happens in a living room, and examines life beyond propriety. Round And Round The Garden is located in the backyard of the same dining/living room-set house, and explores the perpetual cycles of drama one attracts and indulges in. Ayckbourn uses these settings to reveal character and relationships, and to shine a light on the nature of modern intimate relating between families and lovers. The "living" here includes many modes of behavior: arguing, sharing, explaining, confessing, pleading, fighting, fuming, f**king. The fact we, as an audience, can't keep track of all the details throughout all the plays, is something both playwright and director are fully aware of; we think less of chronology and more about character.
Beginning the cycle with Table Manners would, chronologically, make the most sense, since the events of the trilogy take place between a late Saturday afternoon and a Monday morning, but more deeply, Table Manners allows us to see Annie (Laura Condlln) in her own element before anyone arrives; we see the books falling off the one buffet in the dining room, we see the threadbare furniture. This is not a moneyed family, nor is it an entirely proper one, despite the propensity for British manners. The play allows an insight into the other family members before Norman (played by Soulpepper's Founding Artistic Director, Albert Schultz) makes his dramatic entrance. Director Ted Dykstra hasn't placed Ayckbourn's trilogy in any specific time period, which only increases their timeless quality and every-person appeal, but set designer Ken MacKenzie's old-world designs (patterned rugs, clunky furniture) hint at a lower-middle-class household, with would-be pretenses toward propriety and class.
What ties the many moving parts of Ayckbourn's sprawling works together is the recurring theme of loneliness; Annie, Reg (Derek Boyes), Sarah (Fiona Reid), Ruth (Sarah Mennell), doltish neighbor Tom (Oliver Dennis) and even (especially) Norman are all stewing in a special sort of isolation that is both specific and yet universal. Dykstra cleverly underlines this undercurrent through smart blocking and good casting. Longtime Soulpepper favorite Oliver Dennis as Tom, for instance, initially seems a bit too old beside Laura Condlln's young Annie, even with a tidy blond wig that makes him resemble James Fox's gawky cousin; that age difference, however, is smartly used as an unspoken hurdle between the would-be onstage pair. An older Tom renders his awkwardness with Annie even more painful to observe, and the purposely awkward chemistry between Dennis and Condllin gives way to many comedic scenes shot through with halting sentences and resigned sighs; with communication stilted, difficult, and frustrating, this is a romance quickly going nowhere. Small gestures give big hints as to character - for instance, Tom's fussily agitating a spoon in his teacup, or his seating choice at breakfast Monday morning, when, at a near-empty table, he chooses to sit on a ridiculously low stool, one he uses again in Living Together. Such a choice reflects the character's exasperating stupidity and almost-ran mentality, qualities made all the more galling by age and a total lack of self-awareness.