The Norman Conquests

(Mixed Company)


I remember once when I was about fifteen, I set my VCR to record a program late night on the ABC called, “The Norman Conquests”. When I got home from school the next day, I rewound the tape, eager to watch what I thought would be a documentary on William the Conqueror (being the history-freak-girl that I am). But instead of angry Frenchmen, battles at Hastings and arrows in King Harold’s eye, I found I had taped a completely different Norman Conquest. Caught out by the punny title, I had taped an English TV version of Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy “trilogy”. Of course, I didn’t watch it it didn’t seem to be anything but a bunch of middle-aged English people yabbering on, and I have various London relatives who fill that role in my life.

But fate, it would seem, had destined me to see this play at some point, so on Thursday May 16, I found myself at the Cement Box Theatre, parked very badly in a very tight spot on a hill, ready to actually watch The Norman Conquests. Well, at least one of the three plays: “Round and Round the Garden”. And, quick capsule review, I liked it. It was fun, energetic and well-acted. Read on now for elaboration.

Mixed Company’s purpose in the Briz Vegas theatre scene is to stage quality comedy theatre and showcase local comedic talent. A look around the foyer before the show and you see evidence of their body of work posters for Run for Your Wife, Sylvia, Ruthless: The Musical and “he Women, to name a few. The Norman Conquests is an excellent addition to this catalogue. Mixed Company obviously know and cater for their target market.

TNC is set over one weekend at a country house somewhere in England. Annie lives their with her mother, but she’s organised a dirty weekend away with her sister Ruth’s husband Norman. So her brother Reg and his wife Sarah arrive to look after the house. Added to this is Tom, the local vet. He and Annie are secretly in love with each other, but too scared to say anything. The dirty weekend is cancelled, and shenanigans ensue.

Confused yet? Well all you really need to know it’s a story about English people having affairs, but keeping it in the family. “Bedroom farce” perhaps is the term. Honestly, it doesn’t say much for the Poms when every second play about English people has them having it off with their brother’s wife, or sister’s uncle, or cousin’s dog. It’s a peculiarly English stiff upper lip thing, isn’t it? I mean, Italians yell and scream and torture themselves, Aussies fight it out, Americans sniffle and cry and psycho-analyse themselves..but Poms? They have a stiff brandy, and keep everything respectable. “Oh, you’re having an affair with my wife? Oh, jolly good. Would you mind asking her where she put my sock garters?”. That sort of thing. Always the legitimate theatre. I’m sure you wouldn’t see it on Coronation Street. But look at me, I’m getting distracted.

What the bedroom farce does, I suppose, is allow talented actors spin beautifully written clever witty dialogue around the room like verbal gymnasts at the theatrical Olympics. And for that, The Norman Conquests gets the gold medal. I did enjoy it, despite concluding that “Keep Your Pants On England!” is my new motto.

Brian Edmond as Norman is great to watch. He creates a character of small stature, but big personality. His wife Ruth describes him best as a naughty but friendly dog, and Edmond really portrays that well. He’s a stud, and no one can really work out why. Sandra Harman as Ruth is suitably business-as-usual, unruffled by her husband’s constant sniffing up the wrong leg. Pauline Campton plays the sweet, likeable Annie very well her delivery is superb. Brad Ashwood as Tom, Paul Careless as Reg and Dale Murison as Sarah round out the cast, and all demonstrate excellent character actor ability. Mixed Company not only knows their audience, but they know their actors. The casting was unquestionably right, and complemented by simple yet effective set, costumes, lighting and music.

My main hassle comes from not really being part of Mixed Company’s target audience. I only knew vaguely that The Norman Conquests was a trilogy, and I was unclear as to what we were seeing, as the ticket said “Table Manners” but the set indicated “Round and Round the Garden”. Chomping on some Maltesers I wound up asking the director, the incredibly diverse and talented Simone de Haas, what was going on. Five minutes and a separate flyer later, I was on my way to understanding. The three plays all take place over the same weekend, about the same series of events. But while “Round and Round the Garden” shows what happened in the garden, “Table Manners” shows what happened in the kitchen, and “Living Together” shows what happened in the living room. So each play stands on its own, but you can watch all three and see the complete story. Ahhhhh, I thought, sipping on a Lemon, Lime and Bitters. It’s all becoming clearer.

They’re actually performing all THREE plays at once, which is a testimony to Mixed Company and the actors’ abilities (if not their sanities). But the explanatory flyer wasn’t helping much either, as it indicated we should have been seeing “Table Manners” as well! So my main criticism is that people who aren’t used to either Mixed Company or the play itself (plays themselves?) or are simply theatre bogans like me, might get confused. Also, and I know this isn’t Mixed Company’s fault, but the parking around the Cement Box is terrible. My mother had to direct me through an 18-point turn just so we could get out. (Because of the lack of space, not because of my driving skills, thank you very much).

But technical stuff-ups really shouldn’t ruin the show, and it is a good show. If you’re into confrontational theatre, this isn’t for you. It’s an inoffensive comedy, and it more than satisfied the audience on Thursday night. (My Mum liked it too). I’ll repeat, Mixed Company knows and caters for their target audience, and the fact they do it so successfully is the highest compliment I could pay any theatre company.

— Natalie Bochenski
(Performance seen: Wed 15th May 2002)