Theatre Review: The Norman Conquests

Soulpepper’s second offering this season is an encore presentation of last year’s popular comedic trilogy The Norman Conquests, written by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn one week in 1973. The plays can be enjoyed individually or together in any order, each viewing the same weekend of indiscretion from a different location. Norman, played by Soulpepper's Founding Artistic Director Albert Schultz, is an irresistible, despicable cad who wants “to make everyone happy,” but mostly himself.

Sir Alan Ayckbourn has written 78 plays, earning a knighthood and a Tony lifetime achievement award. Each play of The Norman Conquests is fun and enjoyable independent of the others, but the humour and significance are cumulative, each part becoming funnier and more poignant if you have seen one or both of the others. Ayckbourn wrote the first scene of each play, then the second scenes and so on, covering the same Saturday evening to Monday morning.

Table Manners shows all the action happening in the dining room, Living Together shows the events that unfold in the living room, and Round and Round the Garden in the garden. While each has a satisfying ending, Garden gives the strongest sense of closure, and though all are funny, Living Together is perhaps the most intensely comedic of the three and could be called the meat (while the other two are the bread).

Watch any of the three and you’ll see a good show; see more than one and you’ll see Tom Stoppard’s adage “Every exit is an entrance somewhere else” in action. But more than just being in on the joke of what is happening elsewhere, you get to see the characters in different contexts. Each play offers a different perspective, focus, and tone within the dynamics of this ridiculous, believably dysfunctional family. There is continuity without repetition, and in seeing all three shows you are able to see all sides of Ayckbourn’s three-dimensional characters.

Forlorn middle-aged Annie (Laura Condlln) is stuck living in the country taking care of her ailing, cantankerous mother. Her jovial brother Reg (Derek Boyes) and his fastidious wife Sarah (a role in which Fiona Reid is unceasingly funny and credible) come to take care of the never seen mother so that Annie can spend a weekend away. Contrary to the supposition that Annie would be going off with the well-meaning but exasperatingly dense and awkward Tom (played to maddening perfection by Oliver Dennis), the ill-fated tryst was to be with her brother-in-law Norman, the kept husband of her sister Ruth (Sarah Mennell), a woman who in one of the plays appears to be so unfeeling and career focused as to have no concern for Norman or his conduct.

The six characters wind up at the house and at each other's throats all weekend. The first-rate quality of the writing is matched by that of the acting. Ted Dykstra directs the cast like a six-piece orchestra, with nuance, intensity, and counterpoint, making the enjoyment an effortless experience. The Norman Conquests is full of cleverness and silliness, but beyond the dialogue and structure, there are good physical bits. Dykstra creates wonderful “extra footage” during scene changes with props being cleared in mini ballets. Watching Tom serve tea is worth the price of admission to Living Together.

Most of the audience on opening Saturday (by show of hands) attended all three shows, and there wasn’t a yawn in the house; in six hours of performance not a moment was too rushed or too slow. Each two-hour show has a ten minute intermission, and shows are spaced to allow time for a quick meal in the Distillery or something light at the theatre.

The Norman Conquests is not a guilty pleasure: it is a pleasure. It can be taken as light entertainment, but it is not superficial. Ayckbourn offers a significant look at loneliness within and without marriage, and at challenges that come with the strains of long relationships between spouses, siblings, and in-laws. But mostly, together or separately, these plays are good comedy.

$57-74. Soulpepper's The Norman Conquests trilogy, Young Centre for the Performing Arts, runs until Mar. 8. 

Evan Andrew Mackay is a Toronto playwright and humorist who writes about culture and social justice.

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