REVIEW: The Norman Conquests ,The Old Vic

PUBLISHED: 12:04 16 October 2008 | UPDATED: 15:31 07 September 2010

Three star rating If Alan Ayckbourn was an architect, Norman Foster would be running scared. Ayckbourn s a genius when it comes to structure: constantly inventing ways to wow the crowd. His comedy Intimate Exchanges has

The Norman Conquests

The Old Vic

Three star rating

If Alan Ayckbourn was an architect, Norman Foster would be running scared. Ayckbourn's a genius when it comes to structure: constantly inventing ways to wow the crowd.

His comedy Intimate Exchanges has sixteen different endings. His plays House and Garden are designed to be performed simultaneously, in adjacent theatres, with the actors running from set to set.

And The Norman Conquests are equally clever. They're a trilogy of plays - Table Manners, Living Together and Round and Round the Garden - which have interlocking plots featuring the same characters, in the same country house, over the same Summer of '73 weekend.

What differs in each play is location. Table Manners is set in the dining room of the house; Living Together in the sitting room and Round and Round the Garden outdoors.

You can choose to watch just one (I'd recommend Table Manners as the funniest, and the clearest introduction to the characters), or all three. It works either way, although watching the trilogy does mean you get a full insight into exactly what's going on - and you get all the jokes. But, as it's Ayckbourn, there's no shortage of those.

There's also no shortage of that other Ayckbourn staple: the gentle sound of a middle-class English family savaging itself.

The play revolves around six characters. Reg, Ruth and Annie are siblings. Reg and Ruth have both escaped the family home and married. Estate agent Reg is less than blissful with his uptight wife Sarah - played brilliantly by Amanda Root - and Ruth, a financial whizzkid, is dismissive of her ebullient, attention-seeking husband Norman.

Annie's no better off. She's been left behind in the family home to care for their mother, a harpy-tongued hypochondriac, who has done a definite Larkin on her screwed-up offspring.

Her only company, other than Mother (who never appears on stage), is the dimwitted Tom, a local vet. The assumption is that he has romantic feelings for Annie, but he seems incapable of expressing them.

Resentful and lonely, Annie ends up arranging a tryst with the libidinous Norman. But as their assignation unravels, so do the family relationships.

Director Matthew Warchus has chosen to stage the trilogy in the round, a departure from the Old Vic's usual proscenium arch. The actors are simultaneously hemmed-in and totally exposed, a neat visualisation of the feelings the characters experience.

But although the text is clever, the characters multi-faceted and the gags abundant, this production of The Norman Conquests sadly falls a bit flat. The staging is often static, which causes a loss of momentum and energy, and at times it just seems dated - like watching an over-extended episode of a Seventies sitcom.

For the plays to have real heart, there needs to be depth to all the relationships: and while the marriage of Sarah and Reg is fully evoked, the other pairings aren't handled as successfully, which leads to a loss of empathy for the characters.

That's not to say it isn't fun - the audience were having a great time the day I was there - and if you're an Ayckbourn fan, it's worth seeing. Just don't run the gamut of the whole trilogy in one day. It's too much. This is a pleasure to take in moderation.

Until December 20.

Katie Masters

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