Situational comedy doesn’t need bells and whistles. Interesting people in amusing situations can be plenty. Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests introduces six characters at their sick mother’s house over one weekend. It’s a spontaneous family reunion of sorts, and that set-up is enough to spark over six full hours of humor (broken up into three separate plays). The Norman Conquests is a lot like watching your favorite tv sitcom live; it’s neither deep nor insightful, but it’s ripe with jokes and one-liners that you’ll most likely quote for weeks to come. And since the plays are considerably longer than your average 23 minute TV show, there is more time to get to know the characters, and more development of the plot’s antics. Plus, it’s British humor so the play is both physical and over-the-top as well as dry and biting; it’s a brilliant combination that makes for a hilariously entertaining theatrical experience.
The Norman Conquests was written in the 1973 and takes place during that time in England. This revival comes straight from a sold-out run at The Old Vic in London and includes the exact same cast. That’s a good thing; I haven’t seen as strong an ensemble on Broadway in a very long time. Led by Stephen Mangan as Norman, the cast awkwardly navigates through an uncomfortable weekend with in-laws and infidelity. They all have the comic chops to keep you laughing while at the same time making their characters sadly sympathetic.
The story is pretty straightforward. Annie (Jessica Hynes) lives with her sick mother and acts as her caretaker. She is having a secret affair with her brother-in-law Norman and the two are supposed to go away together for the weekend. Annie asks her brother Reg (Paul Ritter) and his wife Sara (Amanda Root) to come take care of Mother while Annie’s away (presumably vacationing by herself as no one knows about her tryst). When Norman arrives at the house at the same time as Reg and Sara, the situation gets sticky and secrets are spilled. Norman’s wife Ruth (Amelia Bullmore) is called to the house by nosy Sara and Annie’s maybe-boyfriend Tom the vet (Ben Miles) is still trying to understand if he has and/or wants a shot with Annie. Tempers flare and antics ensue.
The Norman Conquests is presented as three plays, but all take place simultaneously and all stand alone. You don’t need to see more than one play to understand the story, but seeing more than one lets you in on some fantastic inside jokes. It’s in your best interest to see all three if you have the time and money, just because they’re incredibly entertaining. Each play takes place in a different room; Table Manners is in the dining room, Living Together is in the sitting room and Round and Round the Garden occurs outside in the garden. The plays are presented as theatre in the round with the audience on all sides. Only one room is visible per play so when actors exit that room, they are going to other rooms in the house. The conversations that are occurring offstage are presumably what the audience will see if and when they watch the other two plays.
The structural brilliance of only letting your audience in on one room at a time is unique and exciting as an audience member. And with Ayckbourn’s clear writing and director Matthew Warchus’s succinct blocking, the play is easy to watch and understand. There are never moments of confusion, and I never found myself distracted by what could be happening offstage. The cleanness of the storytelling lets the audience sink into what’s happening in the play’s particular room and the activity in the rest of the house is never a consideration. With Ayckbourn’s awesomely engaging characters, the audience is with the action on stage 100% of the time.
The Norman Conquests is just a damn funny. The cast is hysterical, the script is witty, and the production is crisp and clever. If you can see just one play I’d recommend Round and Round the Garden, although that’s only my personal opinion. Any of the three will do just fine. If you have a free Saturday and an extra $255, see the entire trilogy in one day (shows are at 11:30am, 3:30pm and 8:00pm). I personally can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday. The Norman Conquests has received critical praise both here and abroad. It is up for seven Tony Awards (Best Play Revival, Best Director, Best Featured Actor – Stephen Mangan and Paul Ritter, Best Featured Actress – Jessica Hynes and Amanda Root, and Best Scenic Design). Hopefully it will be rewarded at the Tonys on June 7th; it certainly deserves to be.
(The Norman Conquests plays at Circle in the Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway at 50th Street. Performance times vary, check out normanconquestsonbroadway.com to see the complete schedule. Tickets are $107-$112 depending on the performance day. Student tickets are available at the box office for $27. Visit telecharge.com to buy tickets.)