Woody Allen in his prime was a great proponent of the theory that comedies should do the job in 90 minutes. Thankfully, Alan Ayckbourn must have missed that memo. Over seven hours of hilarious peaks and contemplative valleys, his 1973 trilogy “The Norman Conquests” delivers more laughs than ought to be legal while steadily expanding our perspective on the needling dissatisfaction beneath the comic chaos of his characters’ lives. There’s no such lack of audience fulfillment in the richly rewarding revival transferring from London’s Old Vic, its structural ingenuity matched by an exceptional cast and by the supple modulations of Matthew Warchus’ direction.
Ayckbourn is the preeminent miniaturist of British middle-class life, and designer Rob Howell echoes that approach. The stage is canopied by a detailed model of an idyllic home-counties village, which doubles as a clock during scene changes. Adopting the playwright’s favored setup, the theater has been reconfigured for in-the-round staging, intensifying the sense of ordinary folks under a microscope, helpless to escape psychological scrutiny.
The interlocking plays all unfold over the same July weekend, chronicling simultaneous or sequential action in, respectively, the dining room, living room and garden of the family home. While they can be appreciated singly or in any order, the designated opener is “Table Manners,” which broadly outlines the weekend’s events.
Henpecked Reg (Paul Ritter) and his overbearing wife Sarah (Amanda Root) arrive to give mopey Annie (Jessica Hynes) a weekend off from caring for their invalid mother. But it takes Sarah no time to extract the truth: Tired of waiting for painfully shy suitor Tom (Ben Miles) to make a move, Annie has planned a clandestine weekend away with brother-in-law Norman (Stephen Mangan). Acting as much out of jealousy as propriety, Sarah convinces Annie this would be a mistake, summoning Norman’s career-driven wife Ruth (Amelia Bullmore) to deal with the fallout.
After last season’s “Boeing-Boeing,” Warchus again exhibits a master touch with comedy, even if he may be courting trouble from the Defense of Marriage Act. First with the caustic “God of Carnage,” now with the barbed assault of Ayckbourn’s triptych, the director pretty much shreds the notion of connubial bliss. The characters often frown in bewildered condescension at the idea of anyone wanting to spend time alone, yet it’s clear coupledom offers them more aggravation than joy.
That paradox is amplified by the play’s offstage monster, a bedridden mother whose serial man-chasing pained her late husband. “Her life was centered ’round men, wasn’t it?” observes Annie. “When they lost interest in her, she lost interest in herself.”
Root’s meddling prude initially dominates, but all six characters accrue layer upon layer of complexity to dig beneath the Brit-sitcom stereotypes.
Ayckbourn’s Chekhovian ability to reveal brooding depths without relinquishing humor has never been sharper. Each character gets more than one moment of self-revelation, but the playwright and director linger on the pathos just long enough, pulling back to show the funny side of even the most melancholy insights. What makes the plays so enjoyable is the tangy balance of bitterness and compassion; the characters are maddening and their relationships deeply frustrating, but they seem destined to endure. Even their most brittle exchanges bear traces of tenderness.
The play’s observations may occasionally show their roots in the mid-’70s — a period evoked with crisp understatement by the director and designers — but the material and its endless volley of jokes have aged remarkably well.
Nobody does escalating mayhem like Warchus, but no matter how farcical the situation, the superb actors remain anchored in a naturalistic style that keeps the characters’ quirks believable.
Initially put-upon and mousy, Hynes’ Annie grows more empathetic as her resentment erupts. Bullmore has a choice way with a withering deadpan, her myopic Ruth emerging as the shrewdest observer. Root’s abrasive Sarah is as amusing in her self-righteous efficiency as she is touching in her loneliness. Gesticulating and quipping like a bad gameshow host, Ritter exposes the unhappy adolescent inside Reg by infinitesimal degrees. And Miles makes Tom’s awkwardness simultaneously irritating and endearing.
The catalyst is Norman, a clowning Casanova who swindles even himself into believing he just wants to make everyone happy. Played with ripe verbal and physical comedy skills by Mangan, Norman aims his shaggy charms at Annie, Sarah, his jaded wife and even Reg. Out of the entire sextet, he’s the one most actively chafing against the numbness; he’s a weapon of crass seduction who jolts everyone out of their careful composure.
“I’ve been piecing things together in my mind, fitting the various bits to fill in the picture, building a sort of overall view of things,” says Tom near the end of nominal closer “Round and Round the Garden.” While the dim-bulb vet may be several beats behind the rest of us, he effectively encapsulates the pleasure of unlocking Ayckbourn’s intricate puzzle. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube with humor and heart.