It’s impossible, once you’ve noticed it, to ignore how similar The Norman Conquests is to The Good Life; the 70s sitcom that’s as much about class, manners, interpersonal relationships and sex as much as pigs, potatoes and peapod burgundy.
While Ayckbourn’s trilogy of plays predates the Larbey and Esmonde sitcom, the comparisons are inevitable. Factor in press shots of Felicity Kendall and Penelope Keith in the programme and, unfair as it is, it’s tough to not think of them when certain characters enter stage right. In fact the two were cast in The Good Life after the producers had spotted them in The Norman Conquests.
Unfair because these are all wonderful performances in their own right. As an ensemble cast – one that is frequently performing three plays in the same day in some instances – they are almost impeccable, but it’s hard not to pick out Philip Cumbus playing Norman as the star turn.
From such unlikely origins – enormously bearded, wooly-hatted and wearing a mac – it’s almost believable that Norman could manage to seduce three beautiful women in the same family. Almost – but not quite. These Ayckbourn plays take place in a hyper reality. You couldn’t actually imagine it happening, even though there are little fragments of real motivations, angst, outlooks and characters.
Ayckbourn extracts these fundamental truths of how we relate to one another and sticks them on stage – quite a hyper-real one in this case, all bright greens and gable ends, though it’s certainly stunning – writ large.
The effect on a generation of sitcoms is very much evident and rather dates the play. But this doesn’t diminish how funny engaging, warm and purely enjoyable the play is. This production is very much to be welcomed then; not just because it’s so well done, but it has revived a genre that seems to have fallen out of fashion somewhat.
Oliver Birch as the put-upon Reg could have walked straight off a 70s sitcom set, so recognisable was he as that comedy archetype and all the cast played their parts but the overriding impression is of Cumbus, features partially obscured under a bushy fuzz and eyes goggling in lust, innocence, drunkenness.
It’s a total delight. As familiar as a Sunday night in front of the television. As funny as the funniest Britcom scenes you can think of. As irresistible as a short, bearded bloke with the horn.
• There’s a not-uncomplicated schedule to the three interlocking parts of The Norman Conquests. On some days you can see all three – or you can choose to see them separately. If you can only manage it after work the evening performance varies. Check the website for more details.
The Norman Conquests
Until June 23