Lothario role gives Stephen Mangan his latest conquest
Primrose Hill actor Stephen Mangan s speciality is for entertaining but ultimately infuriating characters. Now he s unveiling his latest – the bouncy, bearded Lothario of Alan Ayckbourn s The Norman Conquests. Katie Masters met him. When it comes to
Primrose Hill actor Stephen Mangan's speciality is for entertaining but ultimately infuriating characters. Now he's unveiling his latest - the bouncy, bearded Lothario of Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests. Katie Masters met him.
When it comes to visual comedy, you can't go far wrong with a big pair of bushy black eyebrows.
Just ask Charlie Chaplin, or Rowan Atkinson. Or, for that matter, actor Stephen Mangan - best known for his role as offensive anaesthetist Guy Secretan in the Channel 4 show, Green Wing.
Mangan's brows can knit his face into anything from hangdog melancholia to supercilious hauteur. In an alternative Oscar ceremony, there's a good chance they'd win the Best Supporting Actor category.
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Right now, they're adding a whole layer of silently expressive comedy to the actor's portrayal of Norman, the bouncy, bearded Lothario of Alan Ayckbourn's famous trilogy of plays, collectively known as The Norman Conquests.
On at the Old Vic in Waterloo until the end of December, all the plays feature the same dysfunctional family and its interactions over the course of one action-packed weekend.
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It's the summer of 1973 and Norman is full of the joys of life - and eager to share them with as many women as he can.
At the country-vicarage-type house where his sister-in-law Annie lives, he sets to work on her, his other sister-in-law Sarah, and even - tentatively - on his wife, Ruth.
Ayckbourn wrote these plays in a week, when he was 33. Each one stands alone as a brilliantly comic piece of theatre. But they've been written so that you can watch them all, in any order, to find out the full story of Norman and his machinations.
"He's a livewire," says Mangan. "He doesn't like to see people miserable - it makes his soul itch.
"But he's not necessarily a sympathetic character. He's less attuned to how things are going for people than he ought to be, so he's entertaining and infuriating at the same time. You should laugh at him, but pray to God that none of the women fall for him."
Norman is the latest in a long line of entertaining but infuriating characters played by Mangan. The obnoxious Guy in Green Wing. Recovering alcoholic Keith in the black comedy Never Better. The ultra-competitive Josef in Confetti.
In person, though, the 40-year-old Mangan is far more considered than his bumptious alter egos.
Now living in Primrose Hill with his wife, the actress Louise Delamere and their one-year-old son Harry ("inheritor of his mother's good looks and his father's comedy eyebrows"), Mangan grew up in Enfield, where his dad worked as a builder. He says he finds it mind-boggling, how different his life was from the way his parents' had been. They both grew up in Ireland and left school at 14.
Yet their son went off to an English boarding school, Haileybury College in Hertfordshire - where he started a prog rock band specialising in 15-minute epics with titles like The Dragon - and went on to study law in Cambridge.
But not long after Mangan graduated, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. She died aged just 45. Her mother had died aged 47. It gave Mangan a keen appreciation of how short life is.
"My biggest fear is wasting time, wasting my life, sitting there on my deathbed thinking, 'Oh, I didn't do much, did I?'" he says.
"I don't believe in any afterlife. This is it."
It's a very honest statement, but clearly thinking the conversation has taken too sombre a turn, he quickly undercuts it with a quip.
"That doesn't make me morbidly intense," he says. "I don't wander around carrying my own coffin on my back, ringing a bell. I don't have a big clock on my wall, counting down the hours."
Mangan is good company. He has all the quick wit and perfect timing of his Green Wing character, without his thick-skinned arrogance.
"But I do absorb characteristics of my characters," he groans, "including Guy. On Green Wing, we had a stream of extras who'd come on set for a day or two to play a small part, and every day I'd end up running after all of them to their cars, apologising for something Guy had said.
"It's like when people have a ventriloquist's dummy and that's the cover for the outrageous things they say - it wasn't me, it was the dummy."
There was other embarrassment too, not least as a result of filming the series in a working hospital.
"I'd be walking along in my white coat and make-up artists would run up and powder my nose. And all the while members of the public who were in hospital would be coming past and looking at me, clearly thinking, 'God, the NHS is really going down the tube.'"
Mangan trained at RADA and, after leaving, stuck initially to classical theatre - Shakespeare, Shaw, Aphra Behn. But in 2001, he was cast as Adrian Mole, in the BBC's Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years.
He was, he says, pronounced ugly enough to play the part created by Sue Townsend after a through examination under a magnifying glass.
Since then, his film and TV work has multiplied, with Green Wing bringing him huge exposure - enough to win the attention of the Barclaycard team, who cast him and his co-star Julien Rhind-Tutt in a lucrative series of ads.
The truth is, he's a self-confessed workaholic.
Four days before he got married, he was in Greenland, filming Beyond The Pole, the story of two men who walk to the Arctic, which is due out next year.
The day after his wedding, he was on another set, filming the black comedy Never Better.
Even with a demanding role like Norman, there's no let-up. In November, he starts work on a Channel 4 show called Free Agents.
"I'll be doing that from 6am to 6pm and then coming here to play Norman in the evenings.
"And on Saturdays, we're performing all day - doing the trilogy - and then I'm filming again on Sundays.
"I won't see my wife or son for two months, really...I haven't thought this through."
Except, you know that he has. Mangan is a man intent on making the most of everything life has to offer.
As he says, he believes in grabbing life with both hands. In that, at least, he is just like Norman.
The Norman Conquests are at the Old Vic until December 20. To book, call 0870 060 6628 or log on to www.oldvictheatre.com.