Broadway’s Norman Conquests, Painfully Funny

norman02My knees are quite sore. I might just have a permanent crick in my neck. And I couldn’t be more pleased. No, it’s not a latent masochistic side of my personality surfacing. Although I’m sure something like that lurks deep within. But this fractured sensation can be thankfully blamed on Broadway’s latest British import, “The Norman Conquests.”

Under the artistic direction of Kevin Spacey, this Old Vic production is split into three plays, “Table Manners,” “Living Together” and “Round and Round the Garden,” all playing back to back on select weekends. Now, three plays in one day should typically be reserved for only us most dedicated theatre geeks, but from the response I was hearing amongst the blue-haired ladies Saturday, everyone is getting something out of the trilogy experience.

See them separately, out of order, or all together. “The Norman Conquests” is guaranteed to get you on your feet by story’s end. The plot of this 1970s period British comedy, simple as it is, found a way to impress no matter how tired I was feeling, especially around hour five or six. In short, three siblings (Ruth, Annie and Reg) end up at their mother’s country home with a few spouses in tow, including the title character, Norman. It is in fact Norman, played by Sacha Baron Cohen look-alike Stephen Mangan, that is the root of nearly all the sexual escapades that befall the household.

Imagine “August: Osage County” mashed up with an Oscar Wilde farce, and you might get the gist of “The Norman Conquests.” A painfully awkward do-gooding neighbor, Tom, who in the end turns out to be the glue that just couldn’t hold everything together, joins this fractured family throughout all three plays. In fact, the six-person ensemble makes appearances in each of the shows, which is a cause for much applause simply because they have quite a bit of dialogue to master.

norman01To go into all of the sordid details that make up “The Norman Conquests” would be cruel, as many of the punch lines would lose their luster. But, don’t be fooled into thinking these Alan Ayckbourn tales are mere jokes. The laughs are indeed abundant, but so are the painfully delicious character studies, thanks in part to the sharp group of actors, under the direction of Matthew Warchus.

Man is broken down into three primal parts in the plays, with each of the leads representing a splintered aspect of its personality, unless it’s just me that can relate. Either way, there’s a little bit of us all in the male trio. Mangan tackles the testosterone oozing Norman with comic brilliance, not caring a bit about his looks, rather focusing all of his energy on being the great lothario. Not only does he woo his wife, Ruth (Amelia Bullmore), but Norman also gets frisky with both of his sister-in-laws, Annie (Jessica Hynes) and Sarah (Amanda Root). It’s not too hard of a task, seeing how one is married to man’s weakest nerd-like persona, Reg (Paul Ritter). And Tom, a character that thinks to death without ever taking any action, is courting the other. Ben Miles tackles the role, which is a perfect fit for the former star of BBC’s “Coupling,” seeing how Tom appears a direct extension of Miles’ iconic television character, minus his luck with the ladies.

All three plays focus on the same three-day weekend in July, with each taking place in a different area of the house. “Table Manners” happens in the dining room, “Living Together” in the sitting room and “Round and Round the Garden” in, where else, the garden. It might be a stretch to ask every theatregoer to endure the more than 6 ½ hours needed to take in all of “The Norman Conquests,” but there might not be a better excuse to get out of the schizophrenic weather befalling New York City at the moment than sitting in the Circle in the Square Theatre for this must-see experience.

Photos by Richard Termine


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