Thirty-four years after its West End premiere, Matthew Warchus’ perfectly cast, brilliantly calibrated production confirms Alan Ayckbourn’s tragicomic trilogy of middle-class British life, “The Norman Conquests,” as a modern classic. Epic prod, totaling more than six hours, is the brainchild of Warchus and Old Vic a.d. Kevin Spacey, who’s amped up the sense of event by overhauling the theater’s interior into Ayckbourn’s favored in-the-round configuration. The resulting intimacy between auds and actors is paralleled by the freshness and availability of the material: Being English is not a requirement for finding the situations played out here both uproarious and heartbreaking.
Plays were Ayckbourn’s first major foray into his now-signature games with time. Each is set in a different space — dining room, living room and garden — in a Victorian home in the English countryside over the same weekend. We watch the overall story unfold in installments; plot and characters grow richer and more complex as different interactions and facts are revealed.
In “Table Manners,” the arc of the story is established: Dutiful, depressive, thirtysomething Annie (Jessica Hynes) is hoping to liberate herself from the tedium of looking after her (never-seen) invalid mother by going on a dirty weekend with her brother-in-law, Norman (Stephen Mangan).
Her browbeaten brother Reg (Paul Ritter) and his high-strung wife, Sarah (Amanda Root), arrive to take over nursemaid duties, and it only takes Sarah a few minutes to wheedle Annie’s secret out of her. Annie calls the adventure off, but Norman arrives and gets stinking drunk.
His workaholic wife, Ruth (Amelia Bullmore), is summoned the next day and becomes entrenched in the unfolding drama, which also includes Annie’s erstwhile suitor, the painfully timid local vet Tom (Ben Miles).
Play initially comes across as a comedy of manners, with stereotyped characters and humor derived by the predictability of their behavior taken to near-absurd extremes. The production compels from the get-go, however, because of the actors, who, steered by Warchus, build layer after believable layer of characterization.
Ayckbourn, too, is playing a longer game: The passage of time and the accumulation of information bring new levels of pathos to the story. The more we know about the characters, the more we become engaged in their struggles and wish (against logic) that things might turn out better for them.
What is wrong with these people? Being English, perhaps: Ayckbourn is certainly satirizing the ways in which the unstinting commitment to propriety can turn into internalized self-repression. But the meanings and resonances become broader: This is a bleakly accurate expression of the seemingly unending capacity of human beings to make self-defeating choices. It’s funny and sad because it rings so true.
The sui-generis element of this play, and a stroke of bizarre genius, is the character of Norman, played with electrifying conviction by Brit TV star Mangan. At first, he comes across as your average lascivious pleasure-seeker. But as the extent of his serial seduction becomes apparent — not just Annie, but Sarah, Ruth and, briefly, Reg — he is exposed as a narcissistic libertine, perhaps even a borderline sociopath. The character fascinates in his own right, but is also a crafty device on Ayckbourn’s part to expose everyone else’s needs and desires.
The series’ second play, “Living Together,” is its weakest link: Its crucial scenes take place when everyone is either drunk or playing board games, and generates a similar torpor.
But the comic heights of “Table Manners” are surpassed by those of “Round and Round the Garden,” in which every character is given multiple moments to shine, including the previously sidelined Ruth and Tom, whose extended scene of misunderstanding is brilliantly played by Bullmore and Miles.
The excellent design team (Rob Howell, sets and costumes; David Howe, lights; Simon Baker, sound) outdo themselves in this final section as it shifts from bright daylight and chirping birds to a sexily sultry, cricket-filled evening.
Plays are written and produced to be viewed independently or as a marathon, though one suspects those entering the narrative stream late might be mystified or frustrated by the hilarity provoked by seemingly benign actions and statements. The sense of complicity generated by seeing the plays in one long day is such that the final curtain call provokes an extraordinary rush of shared emotion, which was heightened on opening night by the presence of 69-year-old Ayckbourn, hobbled by a stroke and led onstage by Spacey.
Prod confirms Ayckbourn as an artist of underappreciated depths as well as an unparalleled laugh-generator.