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The Norman Conquests trilogy: Soulpepper's rollicking, semi-incestuous farce

Sarah Mennell, Fiona Reid, Albert Schultz and Laura Condlln in The Norman Conquests: Table Manners.

Cylla von Tiedemann

The Norman Conquests: Table Manners

The Norman Conquests: Living Together

The Norman Conquests: Round and Round the Garden

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Written by Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Ted Dykstra

Starring Fiona Reid, Albert Schultz

At Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto

Three stars

Shakespeare wrote that "all the world's a stage," but, through his plays, he showed that the opposite can also be true. A stage can contain all the world – islands, battlefields, forests, and so on and so forth.

Nevertheless, on and off throughout history, playwrights have often got it in their heads that they should shrink theatre down to take place in a single spot in a 1-to-1 ratio with reality. From the late 19th century, that has meant a lot of claustrophobic plays set in rooms and slotted into genres named after them (drawing-room comedies, bedroom farces, kitchen-sink dramas).

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The Norman Conquests, currently being revived at Soulpepper under the direction of Ted Dykstra, is a set of three 1973 comedies written by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn that each take place in a single location.

Table Manners, the first chapter, is set in the dining room of the family home of middle-class siblings Annie, Ruth and Reg. Living Together, the second, takes place in the living room of the same house, while Round and Round the Garden, the concluding chapter, is set outside of the house (on Astroturf designed by Ken MacKenzie).

The twist is that all three take place over the same weekend and feature essentially the same, overlapping plot. With this trilogy, Ayckbourn is showing off his virtuosity in sticking to a conventional single-set play structure – all the while subtly deconstructing its tropes. They're designed to be seen in any order (though I'm not sure they should be) and to all stand on their own (though I'm not sure they do).

The events are roughly the same way in each instalment. Annie (Laura Condlln) lives a quiet spinsterish life, taking care of her elderly mother, and pursued platonically by a local veterinarian with poor people skills named Tom (Oliver Dennis). She is secretly bored out of her mind – and so has made plans to run away for a three-day affair with Norman (Albert Schultz), a lusty librarian who happens to be married to her sister Ruth (Sarah Mennell).

Before Annie can take off, however, she spills the beans to her jocular brother Reg (Derek Boyes) and his prudish, prickly wife Sarah (Fiona Reid) when they arrive to take care of mother for the weekend. Once revealed, the semi-incestuous seaside sexcapade is undermined – and replaced by a nightmarish family reunion with Norman and then Ruth added in. Punches are thrown around the dining table, unexpected embraces occur on the living-room rug, and lawn-chairs swallow up people whole in the backyard as antics fuelled by the unseen (but omnipresent) mother's dandelion wine unfold.

This is an ensemble piece, a comic character study really – and the six actors have excellent chemistry. Mennell, making her debut with Soulpepper here, particularly impresses as Ruth – who initially is imagined as a victim of an awful husband, but reveals layers of vanity and a cruel streak that almost make you feel she deserves her lot. It's Oliver Dennis who really steals the show, however, playing the clueless yet somehow charming Tom; the hilariously uncertain pseudo-swagger he adopts is as awkward as the socks-and-sandals combo on his feet. (The brown-on-brown costumes are by Patrick Clark.)

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More problematic performances come from the two most prominent actors in the ensemble. Fiona Reid displays her usual perfect comic timing as Sarah, but she sometimes seems mechanical here. Meanwhile, Schultz, though very amusing in specific scenes, struggles to find an overall arc to the character of Norman; indeed, he can seem like a different man from play to play; believing that this wild boor could seduce one, let alone multiple sisters, is tough.

It may not have helped that I saw the three plays out of order – I would certainly not recommend starting with the second, as I did, as Living Together features Norman as his most sociopathic.

The Norman Conquests are certainly nifty in illustrating how limiting a play's action to a single space both restricts playwrights and inspires them come up with creative ways around the contrivances involved. It's a pleasure to watch a character exit – and then find out what he was doing in the adjacent room a couple of plays later.

At the same time, I'm not certain the Ayckbourn's enterprise – with its repetitive plot and Seventies pop psychology – really justifies the investment of six hours over three nights (marathon performances are also available). I'd heartily recommend seeing one or maybe two – Round and Round the Garden and Table Manners are the best. By the third, though, everything felt familiar. Perhaps, that's the point – that no matter where you try to escape to, or what room you go into, there's no escaping yourself.

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