The Norman Conquests is a comic trilogy by Alan Aykbourn that spans the farcical events of one weekend from three different perspectives. Each play stands alone as well as fitting into the others. Does it matter in which order you see them? In the playwright’s own ‘advice to audiences’ that features in the programme, he suggests: “In short, do try and see all three plays first, or, if you really can’t manage this, last.”
And it’s in that very English spirit of perfectly sensible nonsense that we progress. It’s a gentle introduction into a beautifully ludicrous world, as cartoonish as it is nuanced. In Round and Round the Garden we meet Annie (Laura Howard), who lives alone with her elderly mother and awkwardly flirts with neighbour Tom (Tom Davey). However all is not what it seems, as it transpires she is awaiting the arrival of her brother Reg (Oliver Birch) and his wife Sarah (Sarah Tansey) to mind the house for a weekend while she sneaks off for a secret rendezvous with her other sister Ruth’s (Emily Pithon) husband, the titular Norman (Philip Cumbus). Got that? Needless to say, in the best tradition of British 70s farce, things do not go to plan.
The Norman Conquests is silly, it’s charming, and it’s all mind-boggling complex. From the revolving stage to the sparkling script and six wonderfully assured performances, it is clearly an extremely difficult undertaking made to look a piece of cake. Our protagonist Norman, with gigantic beard and unseasonal woolly hat, is no conventional lover, yet Cumbus brings forth a loveable charm, creating a mysterious yet sweet-natured rogue, a perfect match for his straight-talking and ever forgiving other half Ruth, played to hilarious perfection by Pithon. (Although, one must wonder what the remaining two plays reveal about that relationship.)
Despite the three main male-female relationships being tested to their limits thanks to Norman’s self-piteous belief that nobody loves him and, in the end, his insistence that he only wanted to make the ladies in his life happy, it is a world of strange dalliances where nothing necessarily seems to be the end. There’s an unusual innocence to it all, rather than any destructive lust. Annie and Norman are each looking for something, but sex doesn’t quite seem to be it, and perhaps that is why the play successfully swerves any high drama.
The beautiful revolving set, which allows the action of all three plays to take place in the garden and living spaces of the house as required, is used to wonderful effect, even better, possibly, than the cramped and ramshackle wonkiness of Mrs Wilberforce’s abode in the Ladykillers last year.
On the strength of Round and Round the Garden this reviewer was definitely left wanting more, and was quite jealous of those who had had the day to spare watching all three in one go – the already popular ‘trilogy days’ every Thursday and Saturday of the run. A cultural event that spares the muckiness of a summer festival while providing the instant gratification of a box set marathon, it’s a brilliant idea and a unique opportunity for theatregoers.
The Norman Conquests runs until June 23. For more information, visit the Everyman and Playhouse website. Still clear as mud? Watch this gorgeous little trailer:
(Pics by Jonathan Keenan)