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Fun and games in the British countryside

DVD Review: The Norman Conquests

One of the most prolific British playwrights of this or any other era, Alan Ayckbourn is noted not only for his comic sensibility, but also for some of the quirky structural elements he likes to play with. In How the Other Half Loves, for example, he uses a set that combines two different apartments and has two separate sets of related events going on simultaneously. Intimate Exchanges has a beginning scene and then offers different choices for what follows with many possibilities, two new ones following each choice made. House & Garden consists of two plays going at the same time in two different theaters, with the actors leaving one scene in one theater only to enter a scene in the other.

The Norman Conquests, a televised version of which is set to be released on DVD on the first of March, is another in this string of formal experimentation. Nominated for an Emmy for writing in 1978, it is a set of three plays, all covering the same period of time and the same six characters from three different points of view. The three plays are written so that they can be viewed in any order or independently. The plot of all three deals with the problems that arise in a dysfunctional family as the result of a planned weekend assignation that goes awry.

Norman, played by Tom Conti, has arranged to go off for a romantic get away with his sister-in-law Annie (Penelope Wilton). Reg, Annie’s older brother and his wife, the tightly wound Sarah, unaware of who Annie is going with, arrive to care for their invalid mother while Annie is away. The whole scheme blows up when Annie has second thoughts, Norman arrives unexpectedly, and Sarah discovers what’s going on. When Annie’s erstwhile beau, Tom, a clueless veterinarian show up, and finally Norman’s wife is added to the mix, all the makings for a raucous weekend are in place.

Table Manners, the first of the plays, is set in the dining room of Annie’s country house. The second play, Round and Round the Garden takes place in the garden, and Living Together, the last of the trilogy, in the living room. Since all the plays are designed so that they can be understood individually, there is understandably some repetition, but this is kept to a minimum, and more often than not the playwright’s cleverness with these echoes become part of the fun. It is almost akin to dramatic irony as if the audience has been let in a joke, not everyone is privy to. While the production does move the camera around quite a bit, it makes no attempt to open up the staging beyond the specified sets, as televised versions of stage plays often do. The garden scene offers the best opportunity for variety. Other than that there is a much greater use of close up camera work than one usually gets in TV comedy.

And with this cast, close up camera work pays off with laughter. Tom Conti especially has a face made to fill a screen. Heavily bearded with a head of flowing black hair, his shaggy appearance, to say nothing of his soulful eyes, underscores the many references others make to his dog like eagerness to be loved by everyone. But he is not alone, expressive faces abound. David Troughton, the hapless Tom, is a master at physicalizing his social ineptitude. Richard Briers as Reg and Penelope Keith as Sarah are both masters of the significant look. Penelope Wilton’s Annie channels both sweetness and frustration. It is an impressive ensemble, and they provide some hilarious moments. I mean, truly laugh out loud moments. They do Ayckbourn proud.

The three DVD set allows each of the plays to be presented in its entirety on one disc. Total running time for all three is a bit over three hundred minutes. There is little in the way of extras. The first disc includes a short prose biography of the playwright and the second has some background about the trilogy.


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From left, Frances Marshall, Antony Eden and Louise Shuttleworth in A Brief History of Women. Image © Tony Bartholomew

Theater Review (NYC Off-Broadway): ‘A Brief History of Women’ by Alan Ayckbourn

Nearly six decades into his career, Ayckbourn maintains his sure touch on both the page and the stage, while his depictions of the long view of life continue to deepen. Brilliantly written and beautiful acted, his new time-shifting masterpiece engages both heart and mind.