Picture this: a homelessness charity cafe with large dinner table in the centre, surrounded by circles of chairs haphazardly arranged. That is the set for Antonia Hansen’s revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1973 comedy. One of a trilogy of plays called The Norman Conquests, Table Manners follows the drama of a family over the course of a weekend who loathe yet love each other all at the same time. Hansen’s update aims to bring the women to the fore and throughout the performance makes clear an intentional distinction between the male and female characters. The men are dopey and dim whereas the women are headstrong and opinionated. The update works, and this is mostly thanks to the actors.
This production boasts impressive performances from all its cast and in particular from Martha Harlan as Annie, Cameron Forbes as Norman and Jed Kelly as Tom. Kelly is ridiculously funny, a master of comic timing and becomes absolutely essential for light relief as the play takes a slightly more serious turn. A likeable and amusing stage presence, the look of constant bewilderment on his face never fails to be funny. He was my favourite part of the play and in all honestly I would pay the ticket price just to see him again.
Harlan and Forbes are also impressive in their roles – Harlan’s acting is so effortlessly believable that she manages to make a character who could be so easily be forgettable totally memorable. Her different relationship with each character is very convincing and this is mostly due to Harlan’s excellent flexibility. There is also some noticeable sexual tension between Annie and Norman which adds a dash of excitement to each scene they are both in. Forbes is utterly charming as the flirty yet misunderstood Norman and you can completely see how the women of the production find him hard to resist. He has hints of dark humour and somehow makes a potentially sleazy character surprisingly sympathetic.
The other three actors are also impressive, especially Antonia Mappin-Kasirer as Ruth. Occasionally she slips into overacting, but there are some moments of really quality acting – what stood out for me in particular was her speech comparing her husband to an overdue library book. Moments of raw emotion are rare in Table Manners, which makes the times that they do appear even more effective.
My one complaint would be that for the first act and some of the second act I am not sure where the play is going. This becomes clear in the few minutes before said climax, but more variation in emotion, particularly in the first act, would be welcome. Having said that, the penultimate scene of the play – when it arrives – is possibly the standout moment of the show. All six characters on stage at once, combined with both a hilarious argument about where everybody should sit at the table and an unexpectedly violent moment of coup de théâtre makes for a delightful climax. The issue with such an effective penultimate scene is that the finale almost never matches up. Sadly this is the case with Table Manners, as the final scene is too obviously just there to wrap up loose ends. The actors do their best with it but some tweaks in the script and staging of the final moments wouldn’t go amiss.
Hansen and her cast throw themselves into a play which is one of the funniest and most enjoyable student productions I have seen for a while. I certainly hope to see this revived again in the not so distant future.