THE NORMAN CONQUESTS
by Alan Ayckbourn.
Liverpool Playhouse Williamson Square L1 1EL To 23 June 2012.
Table Manners 3pm 15, 21 June.
7pm 14, 23 June.
7.30pm 12, 18 June.
Runs 2hr 15min One interval.
11am 23 June.
7pm 16 June.
7.30pm 13, 20, 22 June.
Runs 2hr One interval.
Round and Round the Garden
11am 16 June.
3pm 14, 23 June.
7pm 21 June.
7.30pm 11, 15, 19 June.
Runs 2hr 5min One interval.
TIKCKETS: 0151 709 4776.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 7 November.
Conquests re-illuminated in Liverpool.
It’s fine to see any of these linked Alan Ayckbourn plays alone; each works by itself. Beyond that cost is inverse to reward. See two or three and Liverpool Playhouse offers reduced prices, while the enjoyment’s increased seeing how pieces fit as the story moves across a weekend round the rambling house where Annie lives, looking after her invalid mother. Sometimes the links are closely combined – notably the ‘waste paper basket’ moment in Table Manners and Living Together – at others the cross-comedies connections are related to how Norman’s behaving, and his effect on other family members.
In Liverpool the connections are enhanced by Matthew Wright’s set, which places the front wall of the old house amid a rambling garden. The wall revolves to reveal the dining-room and living-room of the two indoor plays. Twice during each play the set turns to reveal glimpses – memories or anticipations – of what’s happening in other locations.
Ayckbourn’s acknowledged to be the best director of his own work. But Matthew Warchus’s revival of the Conquests in London four years ago probably exceeded even the author’s success. Warchus took the same approach as Ayckbourn: not striving for laughs, but letting the human truth of the situation create its own comedy.
In Liverpool, director Philip Wilson works on similar lines. Seeing Table Manners first brought early despondency. Laura Howard’s Annie, caught in the perpetual stay-at-home mode of informal dress, contrasts sister-in-law Sarah, down to look after her mother-in-law while Annie manages a weekend away. Sarah’s dressed in fragrant formality, with carefully-brushed hair. But the clothes are the character; Sarah Tansey’s performance has none of her character’s sternness.
It’s inconceivable such a good actor should give so superficial a reading. I’d blame the director.
Yet it only takes a few minutes and a couple more characters for fault to be revealed as strategy. Wilson adopts a counterintuitive approach, especially to Sarah and Ruth – who, with Annie and Sarah’s husband Reg, are the children of a once wild woman, moved by age from sex and drink to bed and pills. To her horror, respectable Sarah learns Annie’s weekend away isn’t with loyal local vet Tom, who would be her approved lover and partner if he ever came to a decision.
For secretly partnering Annie on the planned weekend was to have been Ruth’s husband, philandering assistant librarian Norman. And when Ruth arrives the stage is set for an explosion. But that’s not Ayckbourn’s way. He prefers the revelation of character, incorporating several highly comic moments, but leading to more reflective endings. The weekend concludes with the mix of innocence and selfishness that’s characterised Norman throughout.
It’s a near-impossible mix to incorporate within a performance that doesn’t seem forced. Philip Cumbus goes quite some way towards it, with a face sometimes marooned amidst a forest of hair, only tamed for the dinner scenes. Both Tansey and Emily Pithon as Ruth play against the obvious dominant type. Ruth is short-sighted but still a safer driver than Norman; she’s certainly much more the breadwinner at home.
Pithon’s Ruth is bright enough to cope with life married to Norman. Played with a light voice, it’s possible to see she was once attracted to him – and still is, while compromising with his shortcomings. Whatever anyone tells her about him, she already knows. And Howard gives Annie a sense of life awaited within the walls of the old house as she tries to make the best of her false position over the weekend,
Wilson’s chief success is with the women (maybe the approach reflects the passing of a strident element in seventies feminism). And with the indecisive vet next door. Tom Davey creates a character who convincingly leads every situation with an extended “Ah” – eventually they all pick the mannerism up in frustrated mockery. Tom has the qualities Norman lacks, but he can’t express his feelings, a problem Norman never has. Davey seems made for the tall, dark, handsome mode of action hero; shrewd casting that makes his character’s indecisive nature more marked – Tom seems happier searching for a cat in a tree than asking Annie what the other women keep telling him she’s waiting to hear.
While this counterintuitive approach gives Wilson’s Conquests a freshness, the fit isn’t quite perfect. With Annie’s husband Reg, so bored in his life he’s taken to inventing board-games, the effect is blandness. It’s hard to find much sense of character in Oliver Birch’s performance. Technically, it’s highly competent, but the realignment in his wife and sister-in-law has left him on the periphery.
Still, Liverpool’s Conquests are more than good enough to command attention, and for those who see the weekend through, in any order, either on different nights or in one trilogy-sized gulp, it should prove a more than happy picture both of life in early seventies (middle-class, Home Counties) England and recognisably a portrait of people as they still largely are today.
Reg: Oliver Birch.
Norman: Philip Cumbus.
Tom: Tom Davey.
Annie: Laura Howard.
Ruth: Emily Pithon.
Sarah: Sarah Tansey.
Director: Philip Wilson.
Designer: Matthew Wright.
Lighting: Johanna Town.
Sound/Composer: Jon Nicholls.
Voice work: Richard Ryder.
Fight director: Bret Yount.