Review: The Norman Conquests (Soulpepper)

Norman Conquests

Stunning performances fill Soulpepper Theatre’s The Norman Conquests playing at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts

At first blush, The Norman Conquests (playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts) would be easy to confuse with any number of tacky 1970s British sex farces; the sort of play in which horny middle-aged men chase scantily-dressed women in and out of constantly-slamming doors while dodging various wives, ministers, tax inspectors, etc.

Ayckbourn’s script is a child of this genre: the philandering husband, the impotent cuckold, the ice queen and the frustrated virgin all make their mandatory appearances, complete with a furtive shag on a truly appalling hearthrug.

But while they’re filled to the brim with sex and raunch, bedroom farces lack intimacy: we laugh at the jiggle and wiggle and the slap and the tickle, but that’s as good as it gets. People over thirty having sex, haw-haw-haw.

What sets Conquests apart from its seamy brethren is in escaping this inevitable descent into laughing at middle-aged people fucking; in finding clever and innovative places to insert moments of insight, of love, of trust and of intimate feeling. Conquests is a clever, hilarious, unflinching and playful adventure through the shadows and crannies of adulthood, and more than lives up to its billing as one of Ayckbourn’s greatest–and most challenging–projects.

Put it in the hands of Soulpepper, and you know you’re in for a real treat.

It’s a lovely summer’s weekend in the English countryside, and three members of the same family, with spouses in tow, descend upon the ancestral home. We see the action unfold in three locations simultaneously: the dining room (Table Manners), the sitting room (Living Together), and on the grounds. (Round and Round the Garden) All three shows are presented in the round, but the cast is so lively, so well-spoken and so well-guided by director Ted Dykstra that this never presents a problem.

And this being Soulpepper, the cast is outstanding.

Annie (Laura Condlln) has devoted herself to the well-being of her unseen but ever-present Mother, even as her siblings have departed for greener pastures. Emotionally and sexually frustrated, Annie’s self-esteem has hit rock bottom. Until this weekend, her only hope of escape is country veterinarian Tom (Oliver Dennis), a sort of overgrown Boy Scout: good, stout-hearted, honest, respectable, helpful, handy, and utterly sexless.

Arriving to relieve Annie of her duties for a weekend are brother Reg (Derek Boyes) and his wife, Sarah (Fiona Reid). Sarah domineers her way through church bazaars and PTA fundraisers, taking no prisoners in her quest for living martyrdom: why, without her the world would just fall apart! Reg, a cherubic country gentleman, respects his wife’s fortitude and cunning, yet deeply resents the times she treats him as if he were one of their brood of children.

Rounding out the party are sister Ruth (Sarah Mennell), who has been summoned by Sarah to attend to the unexpected presence of her husband, Norman. (Albert Schultz) Norman is a human puppy, eager to please everyone he meets, moving rapidly from shiny object to shiny object, never thinking far ahead–and completely unable to resist the urge to hump the furniture. Ruth, an icy careerist, has found an uncomfortable truce with Norman’s cheating, but doesn’t at all care to find herself once again tidying up his messes.

I was blown away at the success this company had at building intimacy and rapport between these characters, even as they ricochet between high emotions. The brief moments of calm in this stormy weekend–the siblings curled up on a couch, Norman and Annie replaying their illicit courtship, Ruth and Tom having an unexpected heart-to-heart–provide the best evidence that Ayckbourn and Dykstra both understand something important about how families, and the ties within them, work. Best of all, these moments of grounding make the exploding crockery and dinner-table punch-outs all the more believable.

However, while the cast do amazing work as an ensemble, Fiona Reid and Albert Schultz are, hands down, the core of the cast.

As written, Norman is meant to be a lovable rogue, a man determined to make people happy–and if he gets a little fun in the bargain, so be it! But a lot of behaviours which would have been kooky and raunchy in 1973 are, by modern standards, more than a little dangerous, perhaps bordering on rape. Schultz is thus challenged to maintain the spirit of the role without allowing it to become too threatening or dangerous: sexy and pleasure-seeking, but not in any way predatory. His success in walking this fine line is a testament to his talent as an actor, and to the care that both the actors and Dykstra have clearly devoted to fusing a vision of sexual and social morality very much rooted in the 1970s with the comfort levels and expectations of a 2013-era audience.

Meanwhile, Fiona Reid absolutely nails it: from the singsong voice to the well-clutched pearls, her Sarah not only appears perfect in the most Stepfordian sense possible, but exists beyond the stereotypes this character would fall into with a less-talented actor. This is no idle shrew or hag running roughshod over her husband, this is a woman with urges and assumptions and an identity–and coping mechanisms for when the universe won’t play by her rules. The product is a masterclass in character work and in particular shows deep knowledge of the woman she’s portraying. Perhaps even a little warmth?

I could keep gushing. Really, I could. There’s so much I’d like to recommend about every part of this warm, thoughtful and delightful show that I could run for paragraphs and paragraphs about sound designer Creighton Doane’s lovely musical curlicues, or set designer Ken MacKenzie’s fantastic deck chairs, or Diane Pitblado’s excellent accent work, or the poor, poor stage managers who must have spent hours getting this cast to memorize the elaborate and confusing pattern of bows and curtain calls.

But the best thing I can tell you? See it. See one show, see all three, whichever suits you. But do see it, whatever you do.

  • The Norman Conquests plays through late November at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. (5o Tank House Lane, Distillery District.)
  • Tickets vary from $32 to $68, plus taxes and fees. See website or call the box office for full information.
  • Tickets may be purchased online, by telephone (416-866-8666), or in-person at the venue box office.

Photograph of (L -> R) Laura Condlln as Annie; Albert Schultz as Norman; Fiona Reid as Sarah. By Cylla von Tiedemann.

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