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Conjugal Rights

Roger Hall
Andersson Productions
Courtyard Theatre
(2011)

Conjugal Rights publicity image

If you take Conjugal Rites seriously, middle-aged, long-term married British couples are a rarefied breed.

They can only exist within beige decors with nothing more taxing than a few bickering conversations about toilet habits, and can never ever leave their bedroom.

Gen and Barry are so immediately recognisable, so typified and presentable as a married that their feet never really touch the ground. Watching them on stage is an exercise in nostalgia for a type of couple that has never really existed.

This is generally true of sitcoms where the social norm and stereotype is powered up to breaking point.

Based on the 1993 TV sitcom, Conjugal Rites retains the confines of the format: only one setting, only two characters, all predictable, but interestingly it has a certain quaint realism to it.

Essentially it's about a couple going through a mid-life crisis, feeling the weight of its 25 years of marriage. So there's quiet desperation, but the disagreements are solved easily, with talking.

While this is accurate, it does not mean interesting; not only is reality bland, but comedy is meant to be about the extremes of human behaviour and Conjugal Rites does not like extremes one bit.

Where this gets more problematic is that not only does the play drag and the dialogue cannot be called anything close to sharp, but when real issues arise they feel vapid and are dealt with summarily by the couple. Child eloping? Shame. You've slept with someone else? I'm not going to talk to you.

There's also something dated about the main conflict of Conjugal Rites: are we really meant to sympathise with a man who feels threatened by the simple fact that his wife wants an independent career? Maybe twenty years ago, but even then

This lack of weight to any of the action isn't limited to the breaking points either: Gen goes through her daughter's backpack and there are no consequences; Barry is casually and overly misogynistic and stays so throughout.

There is one scene where this actually hits home: when the husband taunts his wife, withholding his affection and approval for her career success in a passive aggressive manner to which she cannot respond. Here the blandness has teeth, but unfortunately not elsewhere.

At its best Conjugal Rites is warm and fluffy, with two people doing well by each other. Better still there is a certain rough honesty to how the marriage trundles on, whatever may come, and there are some good lines with Alexandra Boyd and Gary Heron having good chemistry.

Fuzzy-edged with a chewy, earnest centre, Conjugal Rites is a sitcom without the comedy. It gains an eerie honesty, with situations that solve themselves, but these situations are unfortunately not exploited so while there are some fresh moments and astute observations, Conjugal Rites never quite hits the marital home.

"Conjugal Rites" is playing at the Courtyard Theatre until 3rd July

Reviewer: Tobias Chapple