Review – Living Together (The Norman Conquests) at the Old Vic

Saturday 20 September 2008

Well, let’s look on the bright side (see what a holiday can do for one?).

This was the Whingers’ first theatrical sortie since their expedition to the bush. That’s the African bush if you’re not up to speed (and if not, why not?) not the lauded fringe theatre over a pub half-way to Swindon.

The Old Vic’s new production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Living Together – part of his 70s trilogy of The Norman Conquests – has been directed by the charming and über-prolific Matthew Warchus (who, you may recall, inadvertently gave the Whingers their very first interview).

But the big news is that The Old Vic’s auditorium has been reconfigured and named “The CQS Space”. Apparently that has nothing to do with a TV shopping channel but is connected with something entirely beyond the Whingers’ comprehension: hedge funds and the Hintze Family Charitable Foundation.

So at least the Old Vic’s notorious creaking seats have gone and more bar space has been made available by chucking out some of those useless seats at the back of the stalls. Other theatre owners please take note.

Sounds promising doesn’t it?

Good news over. “The CQS” space has flown in the face of the Old Vic’s sturdy proscenium arch and gone for theatre-in-the-round (literally – the stage is circular) and to make matters worse the programme has eight pages extolling the merits of TITR in words and images, desperately trying to convince you that this will give you a fabulous experience. Yes, nothing like rubbing the Whingers’ elegant probosci in it.

Jonathan Croall‘s article “A Shared Experience” (the Whingers don’t like sharing by the way) assembles quotes from those who love the concept (obviously there are none there from the Whingers) and gushes, “It puts the emphasis on the text, on the actors, and on the audience.” and “It’s very much an actor-controlled medium.” Whatever.

At least he has the decency to admit that the audience “can’t say, Here I am, I’ve had a hard day at the office. I’ve sat down in row J, now entertain me.”

Sadly this warning is comes far too late for the Whingers to act on it and should really be in lights on the theatre’s marquee and on its website.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that row J is actually the fourth row back because row F is now the front row in the stalls*. This came as a bit of a shock to the Whingers who felt terribly exposed there and couldn’t help wondering what the thinking was behind it. Why no rows A-E? Might they put them back in for future productions? If so, the stage would have to be about the size of a two bob coin (or “10p” as people will insist on referring to it these days).

Anyway, it is very literally in the round. The stage is a perfect circle and designer Rob Howell has created a very subtle 70s set for the actors to work in and a particularly nice lamp (nice understated lighting by David Howe, by the way). Although it’s clearly set in the 1970s there is thankfully none of the ham-fisted approach used by the Menier recently for They’re Playing Our Song.

In case you didn’t know, The Norman Conquests consists of three plays (Table Manners, Round And Round The Garden and Living Together) which take place in the same house at the same time and feature the same characters. If you are so minded, you can watch all three in one of the “trilogy days” (consult the Old Vic’s performance schedule for details).

The alternative is to take pot luck, as the Whingers did, and spend the evening idly reflecting that either of the other two options must have been more entertaining.

Because it really didn’t push any buttons (yes, yes, it was a PREVIEW) except those that make us whinge. It felt like the sort of sitcom you wouldn’t dream of watching – My Family springs to mind.

Looking on the post-holiday bright side (again, perhaps for the last time) you could turn this around and say that if you Like My Family, you will probably love this. Goodness knows, there were many in the audience who were hooting with laughter while the Whingers sat stony faced and bewildered. The only thing that made the Whingers laugh out loud was the sign in the gents toilet** which said “Urinals not flushing. Sorry for the inconvenience”.

There was one delightful visual gag about bishops moving diagonally but other than that, nothing.

The anti-hero Norman (Stephen Mangan, right, but bearded for this, Green Wing) is charmless and it’s impossible to tell what his attraction is to the others.

But Amelia Bullmore, Ben Miles, Paul Ritter, Amanda Root and Jessica Hynes – talented actors all – seemed almost as unconvinced as the Whingers were about any of it.

Things picked up when Reg (Paul Ritter) produced his home-made board game and encouraged the others to indulge him in a game. Here at last was something the Whingers could relate to as at the interval it led them to find out something about each other that neither had previously known: both confessed to devising and making board games as children. How strange is that?

Moreover, how pathetic prophetic that one of Phil’s inventions was a West End Theatre board game where you travelled round London’s West End as an impresario putting on shows (represented by hand painted cards depicting posters meticulously copied from ads in the theatre listings column in the Sunday Telegraph – spookily one of these plays was the original run of The Norman Conquests) in theatres and collecting profits until you landed on your own playhouse again, thereby ending the run***.

Pressed on the point, Phil confessed that it may have owed some debt to Monopoly except that unlike that game which could eventually end, his frequently came to no conclusion at all and could go on even longer than Gone With the Wind – The Musical!.

Anyway, we’ve learned our lesson. We didn’t get the point of the last year’s revival of Absurd Person Singular and we didn’t get the point of this either. Ayckbourn is just not our thing and we apologise unreservedly (But Without Prejudice) to WebCowGirl for dragging her along despite her reservations.****

Let us all pray that this does not herald a stream of Ayckbourn revivals in the manner of the recent PinterMania which has ravaged the West End of late. Ayckbourn has written 72 plays. To be staged in the round.*****

Footnotes

* Row F is the front row of the stalls except when Row C is. This should help clear up any confusion.

** Speaking of toilets: we were delighted on our return to find that Mark Shenton has picked up the Whingers torch and is blogging about important issues of the day as they affect theatregoers. Why we haven’t moaned about toilets before is a mystery but it’s probably because we’re just relieved (sorry) that we’re not of the opposite sex.

*** The full 28-page rulebook is available on request from West End Whingers Enterprises.

**** Thanks to Mark I, Jorge, DeeDee, Steve, Sam, Webcowgirl, Jason, Oliver for making it a great night out in spite of everything.

***** Although if they revive this with the original London cast of Michael Gambon, Felicity Kendal, Penelope Keith and Tom Courtenay we might be tempted.

8 Responses to “Review – Living Together (The Norman Conquests) at the Old Vic”

  1. webcowgirl Says:

    I really did enjoy your company and it was SO good to have someone else besides me who just didn’t get what in the world was supposed to be funny about this play. There are nights when I feel like I must be the crazy one because everyone else seems to be having a good time but the show is STILL such a turkey. Let us all pray this fetish for Alay Ayckbourn revivals dies away – but keep your hands off of my Pinter, please.

    Oh yeah – the ladies loos were actually quite nice now that they’ve been refurbed, and don’t you think that having a bar tucked inside the new theater practically justifies everything else? The lines were so much smaller at intermission! (For the ladies and for the bar, FYI.)

  2. Josh Says:

    I’ve seen all three of the plays over the last week and a bit and I should say that I really think that Living Together is a significant weak point, and that the plays work much better having seen all of them. I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and I think it would be a shame if you missed out on what I think is a pretty good (if by no means exceptional) theatrical trip simply due to the bad luck of having chosen the dullest option.

  3. Josh Says:

    Although actually, having just read CowGirl’s blog, I too remember the bizarre tendency of the audience to laugh, constantly, at every moment on stage. I found it quite perplexing to be honest. Especially when the girl just behind me kept leaning forward and screaming with delight directly in to my poor abused ear.

  4. Simone Says:

    I was planning to see the trilogy, looks like it will be a toss up between the two. Cheers Whingers!

    It felt like the sort of sitcom you wouldn’t dream of watching – My Family springs to mind.

    Oh, I must say I love My Family – and not ashamed to admit it! Gotta love Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wanamaker!


  5. I’m torn now…not really into Ackbourn, but the chance to see actors from two of my favourite TV shows is very tempting.

    Oh wait, I can just put on the DVD from Spaced again…saves £20 and at least I know I’ll laugh.

  6. jmc Says:

    I can’t say Ayckbourn has ever done it for me, and back in the day when the nearest I got to seeing West End Theatre was trips to the Queens Theatre in Hornchurch, believe me I saw more than enough of his plays. There’s a technical virtuosity there, for sure, but nothing ever really got my juices running. Got on my nerves, a good deal of his plays have…

    I’m kinda surprised the Whingers don’t like his plays more, but your not doing so is points to you, certainly.


  7. […] (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.) […]

  8. jack Says:

    in reply to Josh’s

    …….”I’ve seen all three of the plays over the last week and a bit and I should say that I really think that Living Together is a significant weak point, and that the plays work much better having seen all of them. I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and I think it would be a shame if you missed out on what I think is a pretty good (if by no means exceptional) theatrical trip simply due to the bad luck of having chosen the dullest option”………

    i went to table manners on 23/9 and left at the interval rather bewildered at how dated the whole thing was – i cannot remember EVER leaving before the end of a production but it really had very few redeeming qualities for me(stephen mangan was one) – if living together is weaker then god only knows how poor that must have been!!


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