Flared Productions invites its audience to be a fly on the wall, placed in the kitchen of one dysfunctional extended family. Over a dramatic weekend, the news of an almost-attempted affair makes dinner, and also breakfast, somewhat awkward. An adaptation of a 1973 sitcom by Alan Ayckbourn, Table Manners is an excellent remedy for any seventh-week slump. It will both give you a night of genuine laughter and make you wonder if the family you’re missing is really so rose-tinted after all.
In this cast of six characters, it seems like everybody is going stir-crazy. Annie (Martha Harlan) very nearly spends a weekend with her sister’s husband, Norman (Cameron Forbes), in sunny East Grinstead. His wife, Ruth, (Antonia Mappin-Kasirer) has very good reason to be annoyed at Norman, but she’s a busy woman and is more worried about the time he’s wasting. Sarah (Lara Deering) is constantly despairing of her inept husband, Reg (Frankie Taylor). And then there’s Tom (Jed Kelly), the lovely and harmless next-door neighbour, who doesn’t seem to know why he’s there. There are moments to laugh with these characters and moments to laugh at them, plus a few moments of drama, as they work out their differences in their own ways.
Table Manners is staged in the Crisis Café, which is part of Arts at the Old Fire Station. It’s an unusual venue since the servery is fixed in place at the side of the room, but it works perfectly for a sitcom like this. Annie uses the kitchen to angrily chop lettuce during moments of frustration, and makes tea for members of the audience while everybody is finding their seats. As long as you don’t mind black tea, take her up on the offer! The atmosphere of the production is excellent. It is staged in the round, the audience on mismatched chairs around a single dining table. Such a format naturally has its challenges – there will always be a facial expression or piece of physical comedy hidden behind someone’s back. Yet here it pays off by bringing you into the intimate, family atmosphere. The set is minimal but effective, featuring a loud orange tablecloth and some patterned wallpaper. The costumes are brilliant too, with some bold 70s styles and meaningful thought going into which characters change their clothes and which don’t.
On the programme, the production declares that ‘While maintaining the original work’s classic satire… we have brought the strength and wit of the female characters to the forefront’. I am unequipped to judge what changes director Antonia Hansen and her team have made to the original, but the resulting script has a clear tonal divide between the female and male characters. The women bring the drama, and the men bring the comedy. Annie, Sarah, and Ruth are all struggling with life issues, especially relationship problems and conflict among themselves. Norman, Reg, and Tom, meanwhile, are all excellent comedic stereotypes: the player, the hapless husband, and the naïve nice guy. This frequently makes the men more likeable, although the audience’s sympathy is with the women. Frankie Taylor’s performance as Reg was especially hilarious, as he made an entertaining sequence out of eating cereal without taking any part in the dialogue flying over his head.
As a play centred on family drama, Table Manners is very wordy. It is set around one table over one weekend with the same six characters in one house, talking. For the most part, this dialogue is very entertaining, punctuated by use of props and movement to prevent it going stale. Occasionally, though, a slower scene places two characters on chairs for a dialogue, which drags if one of them has their back to you. The play picks up pace in its more dramatic sequences, however, and the overall experience was highly enjoyable.
If you want to have a good laugh and lose yourself in other people’s troubles for a night, Table Manners is for you.