Appellate Judge James A. Stewart plans to break out the dandelion wine this weekend.
"I have never been through such a shattering weekend in my life."
Actually, Sarah—and viewers—get to relive that weekend three times. The Norman Conquests tells the story of the weekend in which married Norman's romantic getaway with single sister-in-law Annie doesn't happen in three different plays.
Playwright Alan Ayckbourn says he was kidding when he said he'd write a trilogy, but the reporter he was kidding with took it seriously. Thus, the world has The Norman Conquests, which shows that fateful weekend in the kitchen (Table Manners), garden (Round and Round the Garden), and living room (Living Together). Ayckbourn doesn't care which order you watch them in, but this 1977 Thames production is best watched in its broadcast order.
The Norman Conquests reunites Richard Briers and Penelope Keith, who bickered in The Good Neighbors (originally The Good Life) on British TV. They bicker here as well, playing husband and wife instead of neighbors.
Facts of the Case
Each play gets its own disc:
• Table Manners: Sarah (Penelope Keith, The Good Neighbors) thinks sister-in-law Annie (Penelope Wilton, Doctor Who) is looking shifty. She's sure when Annie blurts out her weekend plans. This leads to tension, and the discovery that there's a lot of tension in the family over a lot of things.
• Round and Round the Garden: Just about everybody runs into Norman (Tom Conti, Beyond Therapy) in the garden as he sneaks up to whisk Annie away. Everybody tries to give Annie's clueless suitor Tom (David Troughton, David Copperfield) romantic advice, but he can't comprehend any of it.
• Living Together: It's time to break out the dandelion wine. This leaves Norman lying on the floor sleeping off a drunk while Annie and Reg read magazines. When Reg pulls out his homemade board game, things could go from painfully dull to just painful.
Basically, this is a TV version of a stage play. The garden part is actually filmed outdoors, giving it a little space and flexibility, but the kitchen and living room portions are setbound. That ends up giving viewers a plus and a minus: The plus is the cast, most notably Penelope Keith and Tom Conti, and the minus is the fact that there's no studio audience.
Penelope Keith, a caricature of stern stuffiness from countless British productions, hits home Sarah's emotions with a look, a gesture, or an inflection. In Table Manners, she's pretty much Margo Ledbetter, her character from The Good Neighbors, with few nuances. However, once you know the story, Keith plays with her persona just a little bit to leave viewers a bit unsure. Tom Conti looks like Tom Baker with a beard, and he reminded me a bit of the then-current Doctor in his odd performance. He gets the most directly comic material, as when he carries on a discussion solo over breakfast because no one will talk to him. Norman's an immature jerk, but Conti plays him with enough personality to make you like him a little anyway and hope he'll redeem himself.
The rest of the cast is decent, but their parts tend to be one-note: Richard Briers as Reg jokes and immerses himself in hobbies to distract himself from a lousy marriage; Penelope Wilton as Annie is unhappy as caretaker for her mother, and tries to develop a backbone; David Troughton as Tom likes Annie, but just can't express his feelings; and Fiona Walker (Wish Me Luck) as Ruth is a workaholic, jaded about her bad marriage.
The lack of a live audience slows the pace somewhat, particularly in Table Manners. Alan Ayckbourn left beats and slow moments for laughter, but all you get is tape-recorded bird chirps in the background. This is the rare occasion when a well-timed canned laugh track might have been an improvement, since the reactions of others watching are meant to be part of the experience. The production could have benefited from tighter pacing.
The production is rather static, but solid. The transfer has the occasional videotape glitch, but no major problems. There are text features included on Ayckbourn and the accidental genesis of this trilogy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are some really hilarious bits here, like Richard Briers' imitation of chess pieces moving in Living Together. Although it can be slow at times, The Norman Conquests can be funny, too. It's also dramatic; the characters will grow on you despite their problems.
The Norman Conquests was meant for the stage. If you ever get to see a production, it'll be worth it. True, your local theater company doesn't have Penelope Keith, Richard Briers, and Tom Conti on hand, but there's a certain energy in a live performance The Norman Conquests was written to tap, and a TV production can't do that. Even so, The Norman Conquests boasts strong performances, and you'll like it if you're a fan of the major players.
Not guilty. I'm not even going to joke about writing this review two more
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