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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Circle in the Square


  Stephen Mangan and Amelia Bullmore/Ph: Joan Marcus

If you were going to commit to spending seven hours in the intimate company of six strangers, wouldn't you want some assurance of compatibility?

You may find, as I did, that one member of the cast performing Alan Ayckbourn's too-clever-by-half house-party trilogy The Norman Conquests - comprising Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden, to be mixed and matched in any order or viewed back to back - wears out his welcome within the first encounter.

The title role, that of a scruffy assistant librarian who imagines himself an irresistible Lothario, is pivotal, and if you should happen to find Stephen Mangan's portrayal of Norman borderline repulsive - with his slumped posture, post-hippy hirsutism, and filthy fetish of a knit cap - you are plumb out of luck. The role calls for a devil-may-care charmer like Alan Bates (circa Georgy Girl) or at the very least a Tom Courtenay (who starred in the 1973 London original) or Tom Conti (the televised 1977 version). Mangan gets Norman's childish self-absorption just right, but it's hard to imagine how he'd set the three female characters' fancies atingle. The fact that they're related - two (including his wife) are sisters, the third a sister-in-law - just ups the yuck factor.

The early seventies zeitgeist was more permissive, of course, but it's hard to imagine that suburbanites such as these would have blithely condoned the prospect of intrafamilial sexual sampling. The decorum-at-all-costs sister-in-law, Sarah (Amanda Root), is suitably outraged at first - wherever you happen to tune in - to learn that Norman has planned an assignation with resolutely unglamorous Annie (Jessica Hynes), who looks as if she'd wear Wellies to bed. However, once Norman succeeds in stirring Sarah's own romantic imagination - husband Reg (marvelous Paul Ritter) is the kind of geek who insists that everyone test his boardgame inventions - she, too, is a goner.

You might think that Norman's wife, Ruth (Amelia Bullmore), would take offense at his shenanigans, but she's a cool customer and keeps herself above the game - except to try to scare Annie's timid long-time suitor, Tom (wonderfully tentative Ben Miles), into making a move of his own.

Those are the interpersonal vectors which give rise to the three overlapping scripts, played out in dining room, living room, and garden. Though Rob Howell's basic sets-in-the-round - topped by a toy-town maquette - lack doors to slam, the model is pure French farce. If I had to re-see one play (enthusiasts may opt for the triple header -offered Saturdays and the occasional Sunday), I'd opt for Round and Round the Garden, just to witness Bullmore's fierce, out-of-the-blue vamping and Tom's terrified reaction. The other two segments afforded not a single laugh, just the weariness that comes with a long weekend in tiresome company.


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