Saturday, 18 October 2008

The Norman Conquests

To the Old Vic to watch all three plays in Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy - The Norman Conquests, first performed in Scarborough in 1973.

Slightly odd, going to the theatre at eleven on a Saturday, a very different energy in the foyer, slight belligerence, slight disbelief. Half the punters, thermos flasks at the ready, excited about the long haul ahead; whilst the rest, disgruntled partners mainly, stood and wondered almost audibly whether being taken to the theatre before lunch constituted sufficient grounds for divorce.

The Vic wisely, judging the mood, didn't try and stop the bleary eyed from taking coffee hurriedly bought on Waterloo station into the auditorium.

I've done trilogy days before. I watched Michael Boyd's Henry VI plays as part of the This England programme at the RSC seven years ago and I was also one of the handful who saw Lev Dodin's brilliant Maly Theatre companies Brothers and Sisters trilogy in the unlikely setting of Wythenshawe Forum in the early nineties. The themes and time frames for these productions though (a near century sweep of medieval dynastic power struggle, and the tribulations of a Soviet kolchus through revolution, famine, war and industrialisation) mirrored the act of endurance on the part of the audience. On both occasions the collective joy, shared by stage and auditorium, at reaching the end of the final play was akin to arriving at the summit of Everest. The Norman Conquests takes place over a July weekend in a country house in Sussex - so I wondered if it would carry.

That it does is tribute to a genuine craftsmanship on the part of Ayckbourn himself and brilliant casting from Matthew Warchus, who directed the fun filled Boeing Boeing last year and seems to be championing the re emergence of farce as viable London theatre fare.

This work is outrageously out of date, crazily parochial and wonderfully, wonderfully funny.

There are superb performances all round. Stephen Mangan exudes dangerous spontaneity as the romantic man child Norman whilst Jess Hynes as initial conquest Annie, Ben Miles as Tom, Annie's nice but dim, nearly boyfriend and Paul Ritter as Annie's older brother, board game inventing, need for procedure, Reg, cut out brilliant supporting roles.

I suspect the plays tap deep into the British psyche, connecting with a tradition that traces thread through Shakespeare, restoration drama, Jane Austen and the sit com (I always think that Dad's Army and the rude mechanicals share the same comic DNA as do Basil Fawlty, David Brent and Malvolio.) The humour has a torturous purgatory to it, a love of failure, misrule and misfortune. Perhaps it enables us to recognise ourselves, perhaps we're just cruel, mischievous or merely repressed enough to love the moral rectitude of elegant character assassinations.

For writers gifted enough to understand the hypocrisy inherent in our own everyday comedy of manners and clever enough to wield the scalpel unnoticed, the seam remains deep and rich.

I loved every moment of the day.

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