**** (out of ****)
If Alan Ayckbourn's uproariously hilarious The Norman Conquests were a consumer product, how could it really be anything but the versatile Ginsu knife?
Not only does it cut with remarkable, exacting precision, but it slices, it dices and it makes julian fries out of its six fully-rounded characters in this jujitsu of love. Just when you think you have the first portion of this trilogy figured out, it's as if the Ginsu announcer is ready to step in and proclaim, "But wait! There's more!"
There is so much more and getting there is half the fun.
Intriguing layer after intriguing layer is carefully stripped away to reveal more of Ayckbourn's intricately woven story (which, by the way, has nothing to do with the Norman Conquest of England, but has everything to do with a lothario named Norman and his lust for love from all comers). Each character's motives are eventually cut to the core. And they aren't necessarily what they seem.
Fortunately, Matthew Warchus' brilliant direction of each installment -- Table Manners, Living Together and Round And Round The Garden -- makes each story accessible and comprehensible in its own right. Yet it's only after seeing all three that all the complex pieces truly come together as an unequivocal masterpiece. That it's almost as if all a film's crucial deleted scenes have been fully restored is Ayckbourn's pure genius.
Warchus helms an excellent cast, all transferred from the original Old Vic production in London. They include Amelia Bullmore as the vain and nearsighted Ruth, Jessica Hynes as her sister Annie, Stephen Mangan as Ruth's straying husband Norman, Ben Miles as Annie's dim veterinarian neighbor Tom, Paul Ritter as Ruth and Ann's brother Reg, and Amanda Root as Reg's prudish wife Sarah. The Norman Conquests is a breathtaking master class in nuanced ensemble acting, almost in spite of being presented in the round. Each actor so fully inhabits his or her character that it matters little if they're facing away from you -- their exceptional use of body language is amplified just as effortlessly as their voices.
I couldn't help but marvel at Ayckbourn's amazing creation after sitting through the marathon of all three last Saturday. While I don't typically go in for long shows, not only did I find myself on the edge of my seat, but miraculously, I found myself not wanting it ever to end. It's every bit as funny as it is sublime.
The Norman Conquests is the best show on Broadway I've seen over the last year. Thanks to earlier reviews and great word-of-mouth, tickets are understandably getting harder to come by. Mark my words, when this ebullient work invariably wins the Tony for Best Revival of a Play, it will become even tougher.
So take my advice and do yourself the favor of booking all three. Today.
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).
Labels: Alan Ayckbourn, Amanda Root, Amelia Bullmore, Ben Miles, Broadway, Jessica Hynes, Matthew Warchus, Old Vic Theatre, Paul Ritter, Play, Stephen Mangan, The Norman Conquests, The SOB Review, Transfer