Tuesday 24 April 2018

Going bump in the night - Stephen Mangan talks giving birth

Born in London to Irish parents, Stephen Mangan is a talent to be reckoned with. For his next trick, he tells Julia Molony, he can be seen giving birth

BUMP: Stephen Mangan stars as a pregnant man in ‘Birthday’
BUMP: Stephen Mangan stars as a pregnant man in ‘Birthday’

For Stephen Mangan, watching his wife give birth, twice, to the couple's two sons, turned out to be a creative experience in more ways than one. In fact, it provided indispensable research for his latest, rather unusual role; playing a pregnant man going through labour for a new one-off Sky Arts drama.

The surreal, yet eerily-familiar domestic drama Birthday by Joe Penhall started life as a hit play at the Royal Court. The action is set over several hours in one room (on a labour ward) where Ed and Lisa are preparing for the arrival of their second child.

This time around, they've switched roles. It's Ed who is carrying the baby, Ed who must endure the pain, probing and humiliations involved in childbirth, snapping irritatedly at Lisa as she fusses around him and moaning that all she's brought for him to eat is a single banana. It's sharply comic and brutally close-to-the-bone in its depiction of one of the most eventful, tense and dramatic events most couples will experience together. And for Mangan, who has been there, (though admittedly as the attending, rather than labouring partner) it's all too familiar.

"It's probably not the programme you might expect, when you hear it's me giving birth," he says. "I imagine people think, 'Oh here we go, lots of jokes about stretch marks and how men can't handle pain. Lots of broad comedy.' But it's so frank, I think. It says some of the things that people just don't talk about - what effect it has on the man to watch his wife give birth. And that stuff is pretty hard to bring up."

Mangan remembers his own white-knuckle experiences in the delivery room only too well. "You go through such a huge range of emotions over those few days . . . All that anxiety and worry, and anger sometimes - you know, at the way things are going, during the process, wondering, 'Why is this happening, my poor wife!' Just watching someone you love going through something that looks so horrific, and then this baby is born and you're just flooded with love, and you go into a sort of ecstatic state. The world suddenly has this glow to it because your wife is OK, your baby is beautiful, and you're a father."

He thinks the whole experience is a rich seam for drama, and claims to be "really puzzled as to why this is pretty much the only piece of drama that I know of that is about those few hours leading up to the birth - not a woman thrashing around and screaming in pain - you see that a lot in films and television. Not trying to get pregnant, not the effect of having kids on a marriage or having young babies in your life. But that specific few hours leading up to the birth and then the day or two afterwards. It's such an extraordinary window of time - whether you are the person in the bed or the person standing by the bed. Those few hours when the two of you are often left alone in the delivery room for quite a long time. And it's tense, and sometimes boring, and sometimes funny, and anxious-making and all those things - with flashes of real drama when those contractions hit, or something goes wrong."

The conceit of the pregnant man is not simply played for laughs in this drama. As well as moments of dark humour it offers a fresh view of the whole experience of labour, throwing into new relief the differences in how men and women endure those stressful few hours together.

"There's the novelty value of a man being pregnant, but as you see from the film, we don't really dwell on that - it's just taken as a given. We don't really want to get into the science of it because frankly, the science doesn't hold up. But you know, it's a thought experiment really - what would it be like?" Mangan says.

His own wife, Louise, was one of the producers of the piece. "My wife found it extraordinarily weird to watch me wearing that [prosthetic bump]. But obviously there's a huge amount of our experiences in there, and of Joe's experiences with his wife. I think it would have been almost impossible to play that part without having been in the room and watch my wife give birth to our two sons."

He's justly proud of the end result, saying he thinks it's "one of the best things I've ever done." And indeed, it was Mangan who was a driving force behind giving the piece a second life after its run at the Royal Court, which was "during the London Olympics.

He suggested to playwright Joe Penhall that he try to adapt it for screen, and then Sky Arts got wind of the project and promptly commissioned it. The TV adaptation must be a satisfying marriage for Mangan, whose critically acclaimed stage work (he was nominated for a Tony Award for his role in The Norman Conquests on Broadway) is often seen apart from his string of television and film roles, where he is best known for playing comic characters in hit shows such as Episodes and Greenwing.

Mangan was born in London to Irish parents. "I've always called myself Irish," he says, "I would spend all my summers there as a kid, in Mayo. We'd make the long drive to Liverpool, get the overnight ferry from Liverpool to Dublin, drive six hours across from Dublin to the West Coast. It was a two day journey but it made it feel like we were going to the other side of the earth. I spent all my summers there running around with all my cousins. I always felt Irish, even though I couldn't have had a more English upbringing as far as my education goes - boarding school, public school, Cambridge and all that."

His educational career is in many ways the ultimate immigrant wish-fulfillment story. Both his parents left school at 14, though his father went on to be successful in business. When he was 13, Stephen won a scholarship to Haileybury - an elite public school, and after that, a place at Cambridge. He admits his parents were very proud.

Still, he has regrets now about the choices he made then. "Not because it was a bad school or anything, I got a great education, and I was very privileged and had a lot of opportunities - not least to act. They had great facilities and that really set me on my way."

But he regrets being away from home for so many years, as his mother Mary died from colon cancer at the age of just 45. "I was away at boarding school from 13 to 18. I then went to university at Cambridge for three years, came out and then my mum died . . . so in a way I'd not been at home since I was 13 . . . I mean, how was I to know? None of us were to know that she was to die so young. And also," he adds, "having children now, my oldest is seven. I'm suddenly like, 'how did he get to seven, he was only born two weeks ago?' I know how brief, as everyone tells you, that period, when they are young children, really is. There's no way I'm sending mine away." he says. "They're not going anywhere."

Birthday starring Stephen Mangan airs on Sky Arts on Tuesday, June 9, at 9pm

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