Six Brits Tackle Three Plays in Norman Conquests

Six Brits Tackle Three Plays in Norman Conquests Alan Ayckbourn's trio of plays, The Norman Conquests, nominated for seven 2009 Tony Awards, is a workout for its British cast.
Amanda Root, Ben Miiles and Amelia Bullmore in Norman Conquests
Amanda Root, Ben Miiles and Amelia Bullmore in Norman Conquests Photo by Joan Marcus (Root) and Richard Termine

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On a winter day in early 2009, six attractive, casually dressed people are sitting around a table in a London restaurant, munching salads and sipping soup. They could be the faculty of a good university, taking a break between lectures, but in fact they are six of Britain's best theatre actors and comprise the cast of Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests, a trilogy of comedic plays about to open at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre after a sold-out run at London's Old Vic. [The Broadway run opened April 23 to enthusiastic reviews; on May 5 the production, bundled as one long play, was nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Play.]

Given the Englishness of the plays, the actors are understandably apprehensive as to how it will all go down in New York, but they're confident in both the strength of their material and the Broadway audience.

"Americans are more comfortable than we are at exploring the human condition, more emotional and therefore more empathetic," says Amanda Root, cast against type as harridan wife Sarah. Paul Ritter, playing Reg, her frustrated husband, says, "So far the audience has found it really cathartic."

"Yes," adds Ben Miles, who plays Tom, the local veterinarian. "Socially inept middle-aged men think they've found a spokesman." Stephen Mangan, playing the eponymous Norman, agrees: "My character is emotionally incontinent, Reg is emotionally constipated, Tom just has bad timing. Every man in the audience is a Norman or a Reg or a Tom." Rounding out the cast are Amelia Bullmore, playing Ruth, Norman's wife, and Jessica Hynes, playing Annie, one of three siblings spending a disastrous weekend with their significant others together in the family homestead. During the course of the plays Norman manages to charm three very different women — both of his sisters-in-law and, amazingly, his own wife — into romantic situations.

"I was worried they [the audience] wouldn't like Norman. I saw myself being tarred and feathered," says Mangan. "Instead, the audience understands that he is an innocent. He really believes his declaration of love to all these women at the moment he is saying it. More than the sex, he's desperate for the approval that making a woman happy brings him."

When The Norman Conquests were new, in 1974 (director Matthew Warchus has kept the period intact), audiences laughed at this accurate snapshot of themselves in crisis. And they still do. Here are three relationships in the process of exploding, set against a repressed, fearful society at the start of a financial downturn — which, once you strip away the period clothes and lack of cell phones, is familiar.

Root points out that playwright Ayckbourn is a master of timing: "Sarah couldn't have imagined that she would do what she does with Norman. He's a mess, but even someone who knows all about him can be entranced if he comes at just the right moment…."

Loneliness and bad timing are the constant companions of these relationships and Norman, however briefly, alleviates them for all the women. "Norman is the only one who doesn't want the weekend to end," says Mangan.

The Norman Conquests is not one play but three, and performed with the audience surrounding the actors. Kevin Spacey, the American actor who runs London's Old Vic, actually rebuilt his historic theatre to accommodate them. [Circle in the Square is usually a three-quarter house that was transformed to in-the-round for the Broadway run of the triptych.]

Stephen Mangan, Jessica Hynes and Jason Ritter in The Norman Conquests
photo by Richard Termine and Joan Marcus (Ritter)

Good actors love playing in the round, says the cast. "There's nowhere to hide," remarks Bullmore. "The audience has to eavesdrop, and that makes it more real." Each of the plays shows what is happening in a different part of the family house — dining room, living room, garden — at the same time. Originally, Ayckbourn was worried that The Norman Conquests were too dark to be popular. Audiences falling off their seats told him he needn't have been concerned. The laughter comes unbidden.

"Matthew told us not to play the comedy but to hold onto the darkness, because the gags would always work," says Hynes. "The audience laughs and then thinks, 'I can't believe I'm laughing at this.'"

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In the 2009 Tony Awards race, Stephen Mangan and Paul Ritter were nominated for Best Featured Actor in a Play, Jessica Hynes and Amanda Root were nominated for Featured Actress in a Play, Rob Howell was nominated for Scenic Design of a Play, Matthew Warchus was nominated for Best Direction of a Play and the production was nominated as Best Revival of a Play.