THEATRE REVIEW: THE NORMAN CONQUESTS
Pictured: Laura Condlin,
Albert Schultz, Fiona Reid
17 OCT 2013
TORONTO - There was a time in Canada, back in the ’70s, when every regional theatre included at least one comedy by Alan Ayckbourn in every season. But times change, and for an entire new generation of theatre-goers, the works of the British playwright who spun out comedic hits like A Chorus of Disapproval and How the Other Half Loves have become unexplored territory.
Now, after a renaissance in the country of its birth, one of Ayckbourn’s more clever works has returned to the Toronto stage in a Soulpepper production at the Young Centre. Actually, make that three productions, for in THE NORMAN CONQUESTS, Ayckbourn created a ground-breaking theatrical triptych — three plays, each (more or less) capable of standing on its own that, when viewed in total, come together as a single comedy in six acts, with scenes that interweave and interlock to tell a larger tale.
As stories go, mind you, it’s a relatively simple one, unfolding over the course of a weekend and set in a country home inhabited by an aged invalid (whom we never meet) and her spinster daughter, Annie, played by Laura Condlin who serves as caregiver. Annie, it seems, is the youngest of three children, and she has called upon her elder brother Reg (Derek Boyes) and his prissy wife Sarah (Fiona Reid) to take over while she goes away for a weekend of rest. What she hasn’t told them is that her partner for the weekend won’t be Tom (Oliver Dennis), the hang-dog veterinarian who’s been sniffing around, but rather her brother-in-law, the Norman of title (Albert Schultz), wild-boy husband to Annie’s work-addicted sister, Ruth (Sarah Mennell).
It all begins in the dining room of the family home in a work titled Table Manners and from there moves to the living room (Living Together) before wrapping up in the garden (Round and Round the Garden), with each instalment revealing more and more of Norman’s efforts to keep everybody — or at least all of the women and himself — happy and fulfilled.
All plays take place simultaneously, with characters exiting one play and re-appearing in another, carrying elements of plot and character with them. It’s an often giddy romp, saved from pure farce by the human insight of Ayckbourn’s work. (As for each play standing on its own, it’s true — if one can live with a lot of loose ends. The time is the mid-’70s and while there is no reference to the time of year it takes place, this Soulpepper cycle would suggest it is autumn, judging from the amount of mutton on stage, masquerading as lamb.
In staging the work in the round on sets designed by Ken MacKenzie, director Ted Dykstra manages to keep the pot bubbling despite it’s slightly dated feel, making the most of performances that range from comedic gold (Reid) to a rather disappointing brass plate (Mennell), with Condlin, Boyes and Dennis each given plenty of opportunity to shine along the way.
But as the title implies, the success or failure of the cycle revolves around Norman and the actor playing him — and while Dykstra and Schultz collaborate to ensure Norman has sufficient charm to cut a wide swath through all three plays, physically, they go a trifle overboard on the “unmade bed” couture the character cultivates. This is a Norman of such slovenly mien that one suspects his “unmade bed” just might be hiding a few critters — finally more dirty old man than over-sized boy. Still, even if Norman isn’t much of a conquerer, there’s enough charm here and enough cleverness to count this production a win in three parts.