Home > Carol Davis, Theatre, United Kingdom > Conquering ‘Norman’ at Cygnet Theatre

Conquering ‘Norman’ at Cygnet Theatre

Albert Dayan and Sandy Campbell (Photo: Luke Olaon)

By Carol Davis

Carol Davis

SAN DIEGO–Here’s a challenge for you. The Cygnet Theatre in Old Town is mounting Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy, “The Norman Conquests” both in repertory together and individually. The three shows, Round and Round The Garden, Living Together, and Table Manners are all interconnected and can be seen together or can stand on their own as three separate two act plays.

Yours truly on opening day ‘survived’ “Norman” in a six hour marathon recently, and is still standing (or sitting) to tell about it. You might want to try it. It is a challenge, but well worth it. It’s an ambitious undertaking and does require a whole day but, hey, it’s a theatrical moment.

It is said that Ayckbourn is one of the most popular and prolific British playwrights. He has written and produced seventy-four full-length plays between 1972 and 2009. They have been translated into 35 different languages. In many circles he is called the Neil Simon of England. There was a time in the past that an Ayckbourn play could have been seen on any local stage in any given year. It’s good to have him back, thanks to The Cygnet Theatre.

The trilogy, of “The Norman Conquests” was written over the course of a week. The plays give three ‘dovetailed accounts of events at a country house over one weekend’ that begins at 5:30 on a Saturday and ends a little after 9:30 the following Monday.

The six suspects Annie (Jo Anne Glover), Sarah (Sandy Campbell), Ruth (Frances Anita Rivera), Reg (Ron Choularton) and Norman (Albert Dayan) are all related to each other in one way or another. Tom, (Danny Campbell) is the local vet who has eyes on Annie. To most he is her best bet as a love interest. Tom is so slow to move or tune in (that it’s almost like watching bread being toasted) that he is invariably a beat behind everyone else. He is one of the family regulars. Annie has about lost patience with him but still has feelings towards him.

One character not seen but spoken of in almost every scene is the matriarch of the house who is bedridden (of her own choosing, it seems) and needs constant care, meds nutrition, etc. Annie has anointed herself to be the sole caretaker for her demanding mother. Sarah and Reg’s visit to the country for the weekend is to give Annie some relief. She going on holiday for some needed R&R (‘alone’) and someone needs to take care of Mother.

The last time the family got together around Christmas Norman the family oddball and womanizer (‘the quickest way to a woman’s heart and body is to ask her for it’) and Annie made secret plans for a weekend getaway at a resort the following summer. The time has come.

Everything is set to go as usual, but… Norman shows up in the garden unexpectedly (instead of in town where they had planned to meet). Sarah and Reg  ready to help Annie out, come across Norman and all hell breaks loose.

When Sarah, a busybody at the least discovers that Annie is not in fact going away with Tom (that was their expectation) but with Norman, their brother-in-law (he’s married to Ruth, Annie’s sister) she has some choice words for Annie and throws a wrench in the whole shebang.

The nail that seals the deal is when Ruth shows up after she learns what Norman is up to. Annie cancels the trip, Norman throws a temper tantrum and over the course of the three days Sarah and Norman, and Norman and Ruth and Norman and Annie, well I did say he was a womanizer, didn’t I?

The series of events that follow Norman’s conquests can be seen in 3-D if you will as layer upon layer builds over the course of their weekend especially if you see all three together. If not and you see them on different nights you get to see in real time, a full-length play anyway. Seeing Round And Round The Garden first makes more sense since it has so much going on and is the funniest. It is usually the one produced most often.

That said, in the other two pieces all the scenes and activities that are mentioned in passing, that take place off stage, are filled in. Each play takes place in a different area of the house. When all is said and done, you are able to complete an entire picture of events of happened that weekend. It’s like filling in the pieces of a puzzle. There is some overlap but the time line stays constant and it all becomes clear, honest.

Needless to say Ayckbourn has given us an unique opportunity to witness his clever ideas, meet some very high strung (in most cases) people and to see how they react to the same set of circumstances, all the while satisfying their own emotionally charged feelings caused for the most part by Norman who believes that everyone should be happy above all else.

Co directed by Sean Murray and Francis Gercke the stellar cast is right on target with every exit, entrance and follow through line. In fact the timing is perfect, never missing a beat. It’s a great platform as Cygnet goes into its 2010-2011 season.

In Sean Flanning’s country style setting with a small but pleasant garden outside the family home (seen off kilter leaning to one side) is seen in the first play. It stands in the background of all three plays. Their family living room with a shag rug that sees plenty of action in Living Together shows a somewhat darker side to the family. A dining room table with a buffet in back is the centerpiece in Table Manners showing Sarah’s obsessive behavior, but that doesn’t get in the way of her making plans to meet up with Norman sometime later.

They are dressed in Jeanne Reith’s colorful 70’s style clothes except for Norman who looks somewhat like a bag man in his overcoat, woolen cap pulled over his ears (don’t forget it’s summer), baggy pants and sporting a shaggy beard. Most of the other character’s clothes are rather stylish for the times.

All six actors personify their characters to a tee and they are an odd mix to be sure.  Sandy Campbell’s Sarah is prim and properly repressed both in her marriage to Reg and in her own skin. Reg is in real estate but would rather be by himself playing the board games he makes as a pastime rather than socializing. He can’t even remember the names of his two children.

Choularton is the perfect foil for Sarah (who gets hives if she can’t pour the tea for everyone). He’s very funny as he grumbles about the food over the course of the weekend. In one play, Table Manners he must have had at least five bowls of cereal and milk without even saying so much as a word or looking up from the table. In another he plays his board game intended for four, by himself. It’s one of those you have to see it to believe moments. It is very funny.

Jo Anne Glover’s Annie takes on the woe-is-me-look on the outside but has a pretty strong constitution inside. She just never gets the opportunity to show her assertiveness and as a result is taken advantage of by the family. She’s pretty much out there on her own and Tom (Danny Campbell) doesn’t help much; he’s so wishy-washy.

Compared to her sister Ruth’s crisp and cool look, Annie dresses in jeans and an old shaggy sweater and plays down her importance. When she does finally dress up, no one even notices. She’s almost window dressing in the scheme of things, that’s why this weekend tryst is such a departure for her. Both women are  interesting to watch as opposite ends of the personality and family spectrum. 

Another study in opposites is Tom and Norman. Tom is afraid to make a wrong move, not because he’s afraid to move, he just doesn’t get half of what’s expected of him. Norman is a mover and shaker of sorts; a con man who just loves women.

Dayan’s Norman is quirky, selfish, persistent and apparently charming to some. He doesn’t stand still for one minute and is the center of everything that happens in these plays. He knows he plays havoc with the women, doesn’t give a damn because after his little romps he’s on to the next challenge. He is unabashedly out there wooing the women and telling them exactly what they want to hear; most likely that’s more than what the get from their own spouses.

The bottom line with Norman is that as obnoxious as he appears to be, he’s another lonely soul looking for love in all the wrong places.  I’m guessing every guy in the audience wonders what the heck he has going for him simply because he’s the complete opposite of what you would expect women to be charmed by. Ah men, ah women!

Choularton has the only authentic British accent by accident of birth but Annie Hinton who is the dialect coach for the others does a fine job at least to these ears. Michelle Caron’s whimsical lighting design takes us through the passing days and highlights the misadventures of the family well and Bonnie L. Durben is responsible for all the little odds and ends that always end up in the right places.

In its totality “The Norman Conquests” rates a two thumbs up. See them separately or see them on the same either way, it’s a win/win situation.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: July 28th –November 7th

Organization: Cygnet Theatre

Phone: 619-337-1525

Production Type: Sex Farce

Where: 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town State Historic Park

Ticket Prices: $24.00-$54.00

Web: cygnettheatre.com

Venue: Old Town Theatre

*
Theatre critic Davis is based in San Diego

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