11:25 a.m. It’s the most beautiful day of the spring, and I’m descending into the dark Circle in the Square Theatre for a marathon viewing of The Norman Conquests, Matthew Warchus’s revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1973 comic trilogy. On Saturdays throughout the run, all three shows of the trilogy are being performed for audiences who wish to spend six and a half hours in the company of neurotic middle-aged Brits in heat.
11:40 a.m. “It’s what we all need now and then: a nice dirty weekend somewhere,” says busybody Sarah (Amanda Root) to her sister-in-law Annie (Jessica Hynes), at the beginning of the first play, Table Manners. All three shows in The Norman Conquests tell the story of Annie’s dirty weekend gone wrong, each from a different area of the shabby English country house where she lives. Sarah and her husband, Reg (Paul Ritter), have come to look after things while Annie’s away. But when Sarah learns that Annie’s traveling partner is not Tom (Ben Miles), the quiet local vet who’s been failing to court Annie for years, but Norman (Stephen Mangan), the maddening husband of Annie and Reg’s sister Ruth (Amelia Bullmore), she goes thoroughly off the rails. As Root’s eyes bug out beneath her absurdly coiffed hair, I already feel confident that no one in The Norman Conquests will be funnier than she.
11:55 a.m. Props to Matthew Warchus, who’s got his actors playing everything with absolute conviction and commitment—whether it’s an uncomfortably realistic fight between Sarah and Reg or comically spluttering reactions to homemade dandelion wine.
12:10 p.m. Norman, shaggy and charismatic, “a gigolo trapped in a haystack,” makes his first appearance. The overarching plot of The Norman Conquests is, of course, Norman’s conquests—the game attempts of a simple assistant librarian to brighten the lives of the women of his family with a bit of romance. Mangan is a shambling Lothario in the role—clearly the funniest performer in the play.
12:45 p.m. At intermission, I buy a packet of peanut M&M’s at the concession stand to keep up my strength. Good thing I do, as Act Two includes an exhaustingly uproarious dinner-table scene in which farce takes a sharp turn into sorrow. Then it turns back to farce, as much of the front row of the audience is splattered with stew. It’s like August: Osage County, but you don’t feel bad afterward. Unless you’re covered in stew, I guess.
2 p.m. Table Manners ends and we step dazedly into the sunlight. “That was really funny,” my date says. “It makes me want to see the other ones.” Mission accomplished, Alan Ayckbourn. I send her on her way; I’ve invited a different person to each of the three shows, in order to learn whether the plays really can be enjoyed individually, as the producers claim.
4:45 p.m. Intermission of Living Together, the second play. Over peanut M&M’s, my new date explains that he feels a bit left out; much of the audience keeps laughing for seemingly no reason as jokes initially made three hours earlier unexpectedly pay off. He likes the play just fine, he just feels like he’s missing the best bits.
6 p.m. Living Together, which ends on something of a melancholic note, is weaker than Table Manners. It would be fun to watch a Norman’s Greatest Conquests show collecting the five funniest scenes of the trilogy. It’s the iTunes era; why not customizable theater as well?
8:05 p.m. After a dinner break, my fellow marathon audience members are so slaphappy—and these characters now so beloved—that when poor Tom wanders onstage at the beginning of Round and Round the Garden, we all laugh before he says a word, much to my third date’s bewilderment. Tall, stone-faced Ben Miles, obviously the most hilarious actor in the cast, plays Tom as a man lost in time, as if Abraham Lincoln had been airlifted into seventies Britain.
9:20 p.m. Intermission. The audience is buzzing about the kiss we never expected—even those of us who knew the play. “How did the concession guy know you wanted peanut M&M’s?” asks my date.
9:45 p.m. Round and Round the Garden just keeps getting better. Is it the last play of the day because it’s the funniest? Or is it the funniest because it’s the last play of the day? My date, helpless with laughter, cannot answer my whispered query.
10:15 p.m. As Garden ends, I realize all three plays have already melted in my memory into one delicious theatrical experience—the longueur fading away, the comic high points even funnier in retrospect. Though all of my dates have been suitably entertained, I’m pretty glad I ran the marathon. “I just want to make you happy!” Norman tells his women throughout the trilogy. Bless his ridiculous heart, he did.
The Norman Conquests
By Alan Ayckbourn.
Directed by Matthew Warchus.
Circle in the Square Theatre.Through July 25.