Boomtown! The Norman Conquests - Stephen Mangan Interview
Meeting Stephen Mangan, who plays Norman in THE NORMAN CONQUESTS.
Added: 2 years ago
[the scene opens with black-and-white footage of crowds gathering on Broadway, as old-timey music plays in the background]
ANNOUNCER: The biggest news in town is what's happening on the Great White Way! With new shows galore and a cavalcade of stars descending on Gotham, Broadway is Boomtown!
[cut to a closeup of a marquee for "The Norman Conquests"]
ANNOUNCER: A trio of comedies are even better as one!
[cut to actor Stephen Mangan, as he turns and looks at the camera]
ANNOUNCER: We met Stephen Mangan, star of "The Norman Conquests!" Three plays in one? Fill us in!
STEPHEN: "The Norman Conquests" is a trilogy of plays ... um, very very cleverly constructed. There's three plays, all set in the same weekend at an English countryhouse. So the action is the same, but viewed differently in each play. So, one play is set entirely in the living room, one play is set entirely in the dining room, and one in the garden.
[cut to another shot of Stephen speaking directly to the camera]
STEPHEN: These characters leave one play, leave the dining room in one play, and go into the living room and then you see them in the living room come in from the dining room in the next play. And it all fits together, and some jokes only work if you've seen all the plays, so you know why they've come into the room and what they're doing.
ANNOUNCER: And who do you play?
STEPHEN: I play Norman, who is a librarian. He's exuberant, he's energetic, he's libidinous ... He's, uh, he's like a randy Tigger.
[cut to another shot of Stephen speaking directly to the camera]
STEPHEN: He's desperate to seduce all the women in the play. The women in the play are his wife, his wife's sister, and his wife's sister-in-law. Uh, so the fact that he's after them all creates a lot of fireworks.
ANNOUNCER: Comedic fireworks! Speaking of funny, let's talk about your hair!
STEPHEN: Yes, well, the play's set in 1973 ... Uh, I have sacrificed myself to grow hair out of every available pore of my body. Uh, and this is the result! I think, uh, I think a job in the Bee Gees is coming my way.
ANNOUNCER: But, it's not just a gut buster, is it?
STEPHEN: The play is a comedy, and it's one of the best comedies we've produced in Britain. It's astonishing, it's ... but what makes it so successful, I think, as a piece is that it is funny and the laughs are effortless, but there's a depth to it. There's humanity to it. I mean, it's been compared to some of Chekhov's work, which is obviously a huge accolade. But, um, I think it's justified.
ANNOUNCER: So, what's the best reason to see "The Norman Conquests?"
STEPHEN: You get to see me in the smallest pair of shorts man has ever invented ... and by the time you get to see it, I might've grown some more hair! So, what more can I say?
[cut back to the marquee]
ANNOUNCER: See "The Norman Conquests" at the Circle in the Square Theatre!
The Norman Conquests is a trilogy of plays written in 1973 by Alan Ayckbourn. The small scale of the drama is typical of Ayckbourn. There are only six characters, namely Norman, his wife Ruth, her brother Reg and his wife Sarah, Ruth's sister Annie, and Tom, Annie's next-door-neighbour. The plays are at times wildly comic, and at times poignant in their portrayals of the relationships among six characters.
Each of the plays depicts the same six characters over the same weekend in a different part of a house. "Table Manners" is set in the dining room, "Living Together" in the living room, and "Round and Round the Garden" in the garden. Each play is self-contained, and they may be watched in any order, some of the scenes overlap, and on several occasions a character's exit from one play corresponds with an entrance in another. The plays were not written to be performed simultaneously, although Ayckbourn did achieve that some twenty-five years later in House & Garden.
The plays were first performed in Scarborough, before a season in London, with a cast that included Tom Courtenay as Norman, Penelope Keith as Sarah, Felicity Kendal as Annie, Michael Gambon as Tom, Bridget Turner as Ruth, and Mark Kingston as Reg.
The first major London revival of The Norman Conquests was presented at The Old Vic Theatre in 2008 with Matthew Warchus directing a cast including Stephen Mangan as Norman, Jessica Hynes as Annie, Ben Miles as Tom, Amanda Root as Sarah, Paul Ritter as Reg and Amelia Bullmore as Ruth. The Old Vic auditorium was transformed to a theatre in the round, known as the CQS Space, especially for this production.
Norman Dewers, an assistant librarian. With his scruffy beard, shapeless cap, and ill-fitting suit, Norman always appears slightly unkempt. Convention fits Norman no better than do his clothes. He possesses a wry sense of humor, a benign indifference to the restrictions of work and marriage, and a well-earned reputation for causing trouble, though the problems created by Norman are never the result of malice. Norman truly believes his oft-repeated claim that he is only trying to make people happy.
In the present climate of economic meltdown we need all the laughs we can get, so the return of Alan Ayckbourn's masterly trilogy to the London stage for the first time in 34 years could hardly be better timed.
There are many blissful moments in these three plays, concerning a family gathering in a crumbling country house that left me physically helpless with hilarity. But the humour in Ayckbourn is rarely simple, and often dark.
This brilliantly ingenious dramatist is fond of quoting the remark he once overheard from a woman leaving his Scarborough theatre: "If I'd known what I was laughing at I'd never have started laughing at all."
And so it proves again here. We find ourselves cracking up with mirth at plays which could hardly offer a bleaker view of the fraught relationships between men and women. There is actually little to choose between Ayckbourn and Strindberg or Beckett when it comes to pessimism apart from the fact that Ayckbourn has the better jokes.
In the course of these three interlinked plays – you can see and enjoy each one individually, though the experience is greatly enriched by seeing all three – a scruffy, bearded and incorrigibly libidinous librarian called Norman takes it upon himself to seduce his pining sister-in-law Annie, his brother's-in-law's control freak wife Sarah and finally his own semi-detached wife, Ruth. He claims he just wants to make everyone happy; in fact he is the most dangerous of egotists, spreading chaos, confusion and misery wherever he goes.
The dramatic technique is dazzling. Each play is set in a different location of the house – the dining room, the living room and the garden – over the course of the same weekend. We watch the same characters and events from different angles, gaining ever greater knowledge of their fraught relationships. Indeed at one level the play is an enthralling detective story, with the audience in the role of Poirot, piecing the puzzle together.
Matthew Warchus's sharply observed production, staged in the round in an ingeniously reconfigured Old Vic auditorium, finds all the strengths of these terrific plays with the help of an outstanding cast. There were moments when I wanted to climb on stage and strangle Stephen Mangan's horribly pleased-with-himself Norman.
A warm and glowing Jessica Hynes wrenches the heart as the youngest sibling, Annie, nursing a sick mother, and waiting in vain for the local vet, played with poignantly tongue-tied awkwardness by Ben Miles, to propose to her.
Paul Ritter is wonderfully ferrety as her older brother, a miserably married estate agent, who bangs on about road routes, tells terrible jokes and suddenly turns with ferocious savagery on his uptight, vulnerable wife, beautifully played by Amanda Root.
And though her part is underdeveloped, Amelia Bullmore has some hilarious moments as Norman's sharp but myopic wife. Back in the Seventies Penelope Keith, Felicity Kendal, Michael Gambon and Tom Courtenay were among those who starred in the Norman Conquests. This outstanding new company matches their achievement in a staging of almost continuous pleasure.
Alan Ayckbourn's comic trilogy from 1974 returned in triumph to the Old Vic this week in Matthew Warchus's production, pitched perfectly between laughter and despair.
Set in rural Sussex, the three plays tell the story of randy librarian Norman and his failed attempt to secure a dirty weekend in East Grinstead with one sister-in-law - and his further attempts to bed his other sister-in-law - while still trying to appease his wife.
The plays - first seen in Scarborough with a cast that included Penelope Keith, Felicity Kendal and Michael Gambon - can be seen separately and in any order, but taken together they make a cunningly constructed groundhog day, with actors walking out of one play into another.
In Table Manners, it's all kitchen skirmishes.
In Living Together, the rug in the lounge takes much amorous stick.
And in Round And Round The Garden, the action is out in the open, overseen by a cat in a tree.
The family's elderly mother lies bed-ridden upstairs and, as always with Ayckbourn, there are tragic undercurrents.
But it's trouser-dropping comedy which has kept him in business for 50 years - and you can see why.
Paul Ritter lays on a comic tour de force as Reg, a twerp in a beige safari suit.
Amanda Root is imperiously bossy as his wife, who spends most of the time trying to shake Ben Miles's dim-witted vet out of his tweedy gormlessness.
She wants the vet to marry her spinster sister (Jessica Hynes). But Hynes also happens to be the principal object of Norman's desire.
Stephen Mangan plays the amorous librarian like a lumbering, sex-mad Yeti or, in his words, 'a gigolo trapped in a haystack'.
The only woman he fears is his wife (Amelia Bullmore) who keeps him on a leash that's never short enough.
RUTH: I have to go to work.
NORMAN: You'll have to go home first, you can't go to work like that. You look a dreadful mess.
RUTH: Yes. You're supposed to be at work too.
NORMAN: I was taken ill, haven't you heard?
RUTH: I'm amazed they keep you on.
NORMAN: I'm a very good librarian, that's why. I know where all the dirty bits are in all the books.