x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The Old Vic's comic conquest

As artistic director of the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey has had his triumphs and his fair share of disasters. Yet now, in a single stroke, he has transformed himself into a national hero

It's typical of the British that when an American movie star arrives to run one of their theatres they are both dazzled and sniffy. So it is that Kevin Spacey has not had the easiest of rides since he took over as artistic director of the Old Vic five years ago. He has had his triumphs, it's true - but he has also had his fair share of disasters. Yet now, in a single stroke, he has transformed himself into a national hero.

For it was Spacey, alongside the director Matthew Warchus, who last year travelled to Scarborough to beg Alan Ayckbourn to allow them to revive his 1973 masterwork The Norman Conquests. The result is a triumphant reminder of what a brilliant playwright Ayckbourn is - and how fine a chronicler of the embarrassments and difficulties of being human. This trilogy of plays, set in a decaying Sussex home over the course of a single weekend, has not been performed in London for 34 years. Despite regional revivals, producers in the big smoke seem to have been unconvinced that there was an audience for three linked plays, fearful perhaps that they would seem dusty and old-fashioned.

But Spacey and Warchus believed in them so much that they have spent an estimated £500,000 (Dh3.2 million) reconfiguring the Old Vic for the purposes of staging them. The grand old proscenium arch auditorium has been transformed into an intimate theatre in the round, which means that seats in all parts of the house are now wonderfully close to the raised stage, so there is a real sense of community as the audience gathers around to watch a modern classic unfold.

The trick of The Norman Conquests is that each play features the same characters and the same events unfolding over slightly different time frames in different parts of the house. Although the plays can be seen separately and in any order, seen together they have a richness that individually they lack. At the start of the trilogy, we learn that Norman, an emotionally incontinent and egotistical assistant librarian, has been planning to go on holiday with Annie, his wife's sister; by the end, we have seen him seduce not only her, but also his sister-in-law, and his long-suffering wife. We have further witnessed all manner of mayhem between the three couples, tied by links of family, habit and need.

It's a technical tour-de-force. Ayckbourn is unbelievably skilful at screwing the action up to such a pitch that you find yourself laughing until the tears stream down your face. I can't, for example, think of a funnier scene in theatre than the one where the family gather uneasily for dinner, determined to have a civilised meal. Tom, the buttoned-up vet, whose tongue-tied inability to propose to Annie has precipitated her plans to bolt with Norman, is seated in a chair that is much too short for the table. Norman's passing references to "my little friend" and "little chap" punctuate a meal that inevitably lurches out of control. The effect is deliriously hilarious.

This tight combination of physical and verbal comedy is what marks Ayckbourn as a master of farce. What makes him something more is the way in which true and terrible emotion underpins all the laughter. These are people caught in loveless and frustrating relationships, desperately trying to find a way of making sense of their lives. The play is set in the 1970s and among the English middle classes, but it is the triumph of Warchus's beautifully cast and directed production that it speaks for all people and all times.

I watched this high watermark of English comic writing in the same week that Little Britain USA was launched upon the world. This fourth outing for David Walliams and Matt Lucas unleashes the characters that have made them Britain's best-loved comics in an American setting - and waits for the laughs to arrive. And come they do, even if you don't quite want them to. There is something so loud and crude about Little Britain that it is hard to resist. But there is something patronising and lazy about it, too. Walliams and Lucas have become successful not by dint of invention and observation but by repeating the same few gags over and over again, ever more loudly. Yet they are hugely popular.

Thirty-four years ago, Penelope Keith and Felicity Kendal were spotted in The Norman Conquests and cast in The Good Life, an enduringly popular English sitcom. The Old Vic production reverses the trend and recruits stars from British TV's trendiest sitcoms such as Coupling, Spaced and Green Wing, enticing them back to the stage. Actors such as Stephen Mangan, who plays Norman, and Jessica Hynes, who is Annie, are heroes to the Little Britain generation. If they lure their fans into the Old Vic to experience the subtlety and truthfulness of Ayckbourn, they will provide a counterweight to the cynicism and shallowness of too much modern comedy - and perhaps inspire a whole new generation.