THE NORMAN CONQUESTS – Old Vic

Calling Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests a towering tour de force and the greatest theatrical achievement of his long and distinguished career is little more than stating the obvious.

First produced in 1974, this Chekhovian mix of comedy and pathos offers up pleasure and pain in more or less equal proportions, and, as a comment on middle-class values and mores, it remains unrivalled and unequalled.

Set over a summer weekend in the garden, dining room and sitting room of a rambling Victorian country house, Ayckbourn the magician has conjured up three separate plays, each one satisfying in itself but even more satisfying when experienced as a trilogy.

Nor does it matter in which order you you see them. Technically, Table Manners comes first, followed by Living Together, and ending with Round and Round the Garden.

I saw the last one first and caught the other two at a matinee and evening performance. But it would have made no difference to my enjoyment had the order been reversed. The plays are so skilfully structured and meticuloulsy interlocked that whichever way you approach them, the rewards are plentiful.

Though the trilogy’s seven and a half hour running time doesn’t yield a great deal of plot, it’s full of incident – some side-splittingly hilarious, others heartbreakingly poignant.

And while all six characters work very much as an ensemble, the two standouts are assistant librarian Norman (Stephen Mangan) and Annie (Jessica Hynes), a spinster who shares the family home with her (unseen) bedridden mother.

Though Norman is married to Annie’s testy sister Ruth (Amelia Bullmore), Annie has agreed to go on a dirty weekend to East Grinstead with her brother-in-law.

But circumstances intervene, and instead of Annie’s anticipated liaison with Norman she spends the weekend at home in the company of her long-suffering real-estate agent brother Reg (Paul Ritter), his bossy wife Sarah (Amanda Root), and Ruth, who reluctantly turns up after receiving a drunken phone call from Norman.

The sixth character is Tom (Ben Miles) a local vet, whose attraction to Annie is camouflaged by an almost catatonic personality that refuses to acknowledge any emotion and who, when he finally plucks up the courage to propose to Annie, obliquely asks her whether she would like him to marry her. Indeed, at times he is so stupid and so obtuse, you wonder how he ever successfully completed his veterinary degree.

In a series of memorable set-pieces, most conspicuously during a family-meal in Living Together, Ayckbourn explores the relationships endured by these six very different people, and, in the process, leaves no emotion unexcavated.  If Norman’s self-acclaimed modus operandi is simply to make people happy, it is his philandering ways that, in the end, wreak the most havoc, albeit with hilarious results.

Annie’s plight, on the other hand, is not entirely of her own making, nor is it as funny. Encroaching spinsterhood, a sterile relationship with Tom, and a nonnegotiable commitment to her monstrously selfish mother – have strait-jacketed her. Her misery and frustration are palpable.

Ayckbourn’s uncanny ability to mix laughter and pain so potently is, apart from his theatrical sleight-of-hand, his greatest gift. In The Norman Conquests he demonstrates this ability at full throttle.

All the performances are flawless. You will find no better ensemble acting in London, and, in a season that boasts impressive revivals of Ivanov, Six Characters In Search of an Author, No Man’s Land, Waste and Creditors, that’s saying something.

Matthew Warchus’s direction is alive to the play’s vast, forever changing emotional landscape, and not a mood nor a nuance is missed. Surely this has to be the theatrical event of the year.

CLIVE HIRSCHHORN. Courtesy of This Is London.

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