“I think other people’s marriages are invariably a source of amazement,” Ruth (Amelia Bullmore) says during Living Together, one of three plays that make up Alan Ayckbourn’s rollicking trilogy, The Norman Conquests, now at the Circle in the Square after an earlier run at London’s Old Vic Theatre.
For the prolific Ayckbourn, other people’s marriages have often been a source of amusement, torment, and possible atonement. In these three works (the other plays are Table Manners and Round and Round the Garden), Ayckbourn takes approximately seven jolly hours to look at what happens over a sour weekend to two knot-tied couples and one not-yet-hitched pair (who may or may never get hitched). Throughout the plays, Ayckbourn never lets up on the hilarity while sending his implicit, absolutely unsentimental message that while relationships are fraught, they’re all we’ve got at the end of the day.
As might be expected, Ayckbourn has built this comedy cabinet with the consummate skill of a master carpenter. He places the three parts in — as the disparate titles imply — the dining room, living room and garden of a Victorian country house, with each play unfolding in one of the in-the-round settings Rob Howell has designed with appropriately unprepossessing middle-class detail. Some of the action is simultaneous and some sequential; so much of the fun is seeing how the plays dovetail from one to the next.
The catalyst for all the onstage strife is Norman (Stephen Mangan), a randy assistant librarian who has planned a clandestine weekend away with still-single sister-in-law Annie (Jessica Hynes), and who unexpectedly shows up at her rambling Victorian home instead of meeting her elsewhere, as planned. This sudden move brings him into direct contact — and conflict — with brother-in-law Reg (Paul Ritter) and wife Sarah (Amanda Root), who have arrived to take care of the siblings’ ailing (unseen) mother during Annie’s “vacation” — a trip that never happens.
To raise the angst level, Ruth (who is both Norman’s spouse and Annie and Reg’s sister) is introduced to the fray in the middle of the night. Also poking around the premises is Tom (Ben Miles), the local veterinarian who is too reticent to make the frustrated Annie that overdue proposal. Meanwhile, Norman isn’t at all reticent or reluctant to put the moves on Annie, Sarah and Ruth (at different times) as tempers flare to the characters’ continued chagrin and the audience’s prolonged delight.
Each of the plays contains its particular delights. Reg, who thinks up board games, gets belly laughs in Living Together when he mocks chess by illustrating how knights and bishops move unrealistically. Tom’s constant indecision is a running gag, and his worm-turning scene in Table Manners is particularly impressive. And the women’s handling of the men — and being manhandled sequentially by Norman, particularly in Round and Round the Garden — is a sustained hoot. For all its clever writing, however, this triptych would not work as well without Matthew Warchus’ assured direction or the performances of this superb, clockwork-working ensemble (of whom Mangan is first among equals.)
As to the question of whether all three plays need to be seen: it is possible just to see one or two and laugh to the point of aisle-rolling. But one certainly gains something from seeing the entire trilogy (and, in my opinion, seeing Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden in that order). But the important thing is just to go!