Review – Living Together (The Norman Conquests) – The Old Vic (and soon The Circle in the Square Theater, NYC)

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This show is being transferred to the Circle in the Square Theater in New York. Consider yourself warned!

Disclaimer: somehow, several years ago, I inadvertently watched Living Together (The Norman Conquests) on video back in Seattle. Normally I don’t watch plays on video tape, but I was broke (as I got this from the library it was free) and it was English and I figured it would be funny.

Well, it wasn’t. An utterly dull lead character, a rather silly sex farce plot … I turned it off midway and got to work on something more exciting (doubtlessly sleep, or possibly washing the dishes). I couldn’t figure out how it had just turned out to be an utter and complete dud, like a can of soda pop with no fizz, or chips that had gone stale in the bag. So the chance of any real surprises for this show were low. And yet … years later, its existence had slipped my memory. Title? Playwright? Nada. Zip. It was as if it had never happened.

And so, happily lacking a key bit of information about a certain playwright, I chose, back in December, to see “Absurd Person Singular,” which I considered at the time to be my first play by Alan Ayckbourn. In an unsurprisingly similar vein to the video I had once watched, my reaction was that … it was just so dated. I found it a real struggle to get through and really not particularly funny. The only consolation was that I went with the West End Whingers, a pair of guys I’d been dying to hang out with, as they seemed to be pretty sharp theater goers and also completely capable of knowing when to cut and run rather than insisting on punishing their theater companions while at a dog.

So another ten months or so rolls by, and yet I’ve still not made the connection about the video I saw years back and the lame play I saw in November. I was unable to properly weigh the value of watching Alan Ayckbourn versus the pleasure of a night out with the Whingers. So what did I do? When invited, I said yes, thinking perhaps Absurd Person Singular was a one-off dud. I mean, hey, this guy’s written practically hundreds of plays – everyone gets it wrong now and then, right?

The correct thing, apparently, would have been to have trusted my instincts about Ayckbourn being the Neil Simon of English theater and somehow to have REMEMBERED the horrible video I watched years ago. And yet … memory like a sieve, I forgot and I went. And if maybe the description on the Old Vic’s website rang a little bell, I just figured, eh, with a professional cast, this will be so much better, right?

Well, I’d say the only thing I got right about this evening was that it’s nice to hang out with savvy theater folk. I loved the lovely reconfiguration of the Old Vic into an “in the round” theater, until I figured out my seats were basically level with the head of the person in front of me; while I’m okay with not being able to see everyone’s faces in this configuration, I’m not okay with not being able to see them because I have someone else’s head in my face. But it was cool to see the rows of seats, like bleachers at the circus, lining the space behind where the stage normally is. I think it made the Old Vic a lot more fun.

Otherwise, well, the play is a dog. There’s just no getting around it. Who cares about Norman? (Stephen Mangan, nothing personal, mate, you did your best.) He’s not an interesting character and it’s impossible to believe anyone would want to sleep with him. Yeah, he does do some fairly comic lying and BSing, but he doesn’t seem to have any motivations behind his words or even behind his existence and didn’t seem the least bit believable. In fact, he was every bit as much of a dullard, a fizzless soda, a non-crispy chip, as he was in the horrid video. If only he’d killed himself like he’d been threatening to in the first act the whole thing would have been so much better!

Sadly, many of the doubtlessly undertheatered audience were laughing at the thin humor in this show. Now I’ll admit, the cast was good. In fact, I loved Amanda Root as Sarah, the uptight wife of Reg (Paul Ritter). She was completely inhabiting her anally retentive character, and when she finally flipped out at Annie (Jessica Hynes), I was lapping it up. But what was the point of this show? I was far more interested in the home made games that Reg was describing than anything else going on stage, though I got a little giggle when it became clear that Norman had (insert spoiler here). That said … what is the logic of the mountaineering game? It has sherpas, but what else does it have? Does everyone climb the mountain at the same time? Are there funny costumes to wear like for the cops and robbers games Reg had everyone playing during the first act? How do you win?

Now, the gimmick of these three plays (for there are two others) is that they all show different takes on the same weekend (description here). I wish that was an interesting enough reason to see them, but I think there’s a reason these plays haven’t been mounted for 34 years. In short: they are dated and they stink. Please save yourself the trouble and stay at home. Perhaps you too have dishes to wash or even some sleep to catch up on – better to do so in your house than in the deliciously reconfigured confines (and I emphasize “confine”) of the Old Vic.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, September 16th, 2008. I have little hope that further performances will improve the script, so consider yourself warned. The Whingers’ take on Norman is also online.)

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2 Responses to “Review – Living Together (The Norman Conquests) – The Old Vic (and soon The Circle in the Square Theater, NYC)”

  1. Review - Living Together (The Norman Conquests) at the Old Vic « West End Whingers Says:

    […] Stan on In which the Whingers return f…Ted Kraus on In which the Whingers return f…Review – Living Toge… on Review – Absurd Person Singula…Andrew (a west end w… on In which the Whingers […]

  2. Andrew999 Says:

    Can’t agree with you more about this play. Thankfully we were warned by your review and on that basis I persuaded my friend to test the waters with just the one play. I’ve a soft spot for Ayckbourn and was left feeling totally underwhelmed and short-changed; incredibly dated with no real laughs and certainly no real reason for changing the theatre layout. It is a mangy mutt of a play which should have been put down long ago. My greatest interest came when I eventually noticed 2 characters from Alan Partridge’s TV series in the cast. I resisted shouting, ‘Dan, Dan, Dan!’ And then what a surprise – the national paper reviews are glowing. Did they see the same show or are they hand-in-glove with the threatre?!

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