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.

That's not to imply that any of the characters in The Norman Conquests are lovely people, though they are all performed with uniform brilliance. Fiona Reid's Sarah is likeable if exasperating; the actor nicely navigates between the comic and the dramatic elements of Ayckbourn's script with zesty energy. Her choice of gestures, in combination with Dykstra's smart, careful direction, hint at a woman who uses detail to fill in the large, yawning blanks of her life; the way she fussily sets the table or arranges the seating for the Sunday supper scene, or makes a face at a jar of marmalade (at an empty table), all imply a consistent need for drama. In seeming contrast is Sarah's husband Reg (Derek Boyes), all soft laughs and annoyed sighs; he gradually shows himself (in Living Together) to be her true dramatic match, however. Boyes' acting is always a smartly balanced blend of comic and serious; here, his deeply expressive face and nice-guy persona are used to great effect, especially when the "nice" part falls away. His sarcastic, angry explanation of chess to Sarah is shot through with wounded pride and long-suffering frustration, even as his miming a horse and bishop is the stuff of total hilarity. It's not often Reg has an opportunity to exert any control, so when he does, he uses it well, with great verve and passion.

Openly reflecting Sarah's self-pitying, dramatic tendencies is the titular Norman (Albert Schultz) a masterful manipulator and intensely self-involved individual. "I want to make everyone happy - that's my mission in life!" he proclaims in the second act of Living Together, though the irony is, of course, that Norman is most interested in making himself happy. Like Billy Flynn in Chicago, the audience, while not fooled by the charm, is certainly charmed by the fool. Norman is a consummate showman, something Schultz plays to full effect, excelling as a man skilled in the art of manipulation; it makes his Norman charming but hard to trust, likeable but slippery. The fact he is shown passed out and wrapped in the rug he and Annie had their Christmas tryst on, with head resting on the hard brick edge of the fireplace, shows he is dying for warmth, both literally and figuratively. While he claims to be a "gigolo trapped in the body of a haystack," what he really wants most is intimacy that extends beyond the physical. Schultz delivers a beguiling performance that vibes off of silent movie stars with its gestural elegance and a keen, knowing sense of tone, inflection, and timing.

If there's one person who shouldn't be taken by Norman's drama, it's his own wife. Norman is an expert at preying on the vulnerable, though it's strange to think of Ruth as weak; rather, she seems to enjoy "keeping" Norman, referring to him as an overdue library book she doesn't want to give back. Mennell uses a combination of strict posture, head cocks, eyebrow raises, and careful breathing to express Ruth's tightly-wound personality. Ruth's vanity, expressed in a stubborn refusal to wear glasses, yields many comedic moments. Costume designer Patrick Clark has done a marvelous job with fitted dress and carefully coiffed red wig, portraying a woman of success and power who has used looks as well as brains to elevate herself from what she clearly sees as the low-witted tendencies of her family.

That doesn't mean she holds back on the snorting-laugh she, Reg, and Annie all share, though neither she nor Reg do share in the care of their ailing mother. While this could place Annie in a sort of "victim" role, she is presented as nothing of the kind; even Norman recognizes this, forcefully stating (in Living Together) that "she is not a beggar." Condlln herself makes the most of this survivor mentality, presenting a smart if deeply isolated woman who desperately misses both physical and emotional intimacy. One's heart aches when she "dresses up" for dinner in a pretty wraparound dress, and heavy blue eyeshadow, her hair up in a half-happy pouf. Her tears at Manners' end hint at her need to appear controlled to Tom, though Norman's presence allows the flood to come forth. Norman's a kind of confessor for so many in this trilogy; as well as persuading Sarah to go away with him for a weekend in Bournemouth, he even wins the sympathy of Reg and Tom.

So The Norman Conquests, then, has the most appropriate of all titles; by the end of the weekend, the title character has, in fact, "conquered" everyone in one way or another, audience included. Dykstra is watchful in balancing the hilarious with the human, never indulging in the comical without injecting an edge of meaning into the proceedings. Sarah's attack on Annie for the latter's dressing up for dinner, for instance, is both comical (Reid flutters around the stage clucking "Slut! Slut! Slut!") and insightful; her literally stepping on Norman's crotch to hit Annie speaks volumes about the play's explorations of sex, power, control, and attraction. We do like Norman, in spite of ourselves. We like all of these people, in fact - not out of some narcissistic familiarity, but because they are alive and fully realized, saying and doing the things we wish we could do, reaching past propriety, living in the 'wilds' and returning to the "garden." Dykstra allows us to go with them, for a time. We are conquered, vanquished, overcome - happily so, thanks to this wonderful, warmly human production.

Top photo: Albert Schultz in Round and Round the Garden | Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Second photo: Albert Schultz and Oliver Dennis in Table Manners | Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Third photo: Fiona Reid and Derek Boyes in Living Together | Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Bottom photo: Sarah Mennell, Fiona Reid, Albert Schultz, and Laura Condlln in Table Manners | Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

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From This Author Catherine Kustanczy

Catherine an arts writer specializing in reviews and longform profile features. She has worked in Dublin, London, Toronto, and New York City, in a variety (read more...)