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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
BIRTHDAY
at Royal Court Theatre

MANLY HEROICS
By SAM MARLOWE

  Louise Brealey, Stephen Mangan and Lisa Dillon/ Ph: Johan Persson

Imagine a world where having children was not regarded as a female imperative; where men, too, could get pregnant and give birth; and where maternal instinct, or the lack of it, was no longer a stick with which to beat women, or a quality from which men were biologically or socially excluded. It might sound like a feminist ideal – a utopia of equality, in which gender-based assumptions of emotional characteristics and parenting roles are turned on their heads. And such a change would surely have far-reaching sociopolitical ramifications.
 
But the brave new world of this new play by Joe Penhall is no bright, shiny vision of an enlightened future. Instead, it is Britain a few years from now, an overstretched National Health Service is struggling to cope with the demands of the new male-birthing procedures, and couples of all sexual orientations are still grappling with the knotty issue of what the best way is to be a family. These are big ideas, as slippery and gristly as an umbilical cord, and Penhall doesn’t entirely get to grips with them. But his writing is very entertaining, and Roger Michell’s production is slickly designed by Mark Thompson and smartly acted – the shifts in tone from broad, often cringe-inducing comedy to anguish and fear expertly judged. 
 
Ed (Stephen Mangan) and Lisa (Lisa Dillon) are in a room on a London NHS maternity ward that has a bleak view of a neighbouring prison. They have been here before. As ill luck would have it, Lisa went through a difficult labour with their first son, Charlie, in the very same room – an experience that, thanks to complications, left her unable to bear any more children. So this time around, Ed’s in the bed writhing in agony, thanks to a medical advance that means men can now carry a fetus ectopically and give birth by Caesarean section. He was induced, as they repeatedly tell an implacable, weary African midwife Joyce (brilliant Llewella Gideon) earlier that morning. He’s been waiting in pain all day for the final operation that will deliver their bundle of joy, but there’s been no word on when that will happen, and the couple’s irritation is slowly turning to more serious misgivings. 
 
Much of the play’s early comedy rests on predictable jokes about the reversal of gender roles. Lisa, the high-powered careerist breadwinner, makes helpless, clucking attempts to soothe – though there’s the tiniest hint each time she sighs “now you know” that she might be experiencing a flicker of pleasure in her husband’s discomfort. Mangan’s Ed, meanwhile, has a hissy fit because she’s forgotten his raspberry leaf tea and discovers to his horror the kind of physical indignities that the medical profession, in the fields of gynecology and obstetrics, routinely inflicts on women. Every pair of latex gloves that the midwife or the terrifying young registrar Natasha (Louise Brealey) snaps on heralds the insertion of another finger, fist, tube or icy metal implement somewhere the sun don’t shine. His mask of waspish humour disintegrating, he’s reduced to bellowing and sucking on the gas and air like an oversized baby with a dummy.
 
In the catalogue of disasters – missing anaesthetists, operating tables that won’t unfold, patients left scared and alone for hour after hour – Penhall is clearly highlighting the strain under which the NHS operates. What’s less obvious is his attitude to the problem: Is he declaring it no longer fit for purpose, questioning its ethics? The questions hang, pregnant and unanswered, in the air. There’s also an interesting political tension between the white middle-class couple and the black midwife, but like many of the gender issues that the play raises, it never develops much further. Still, Mangan’s performance is adroit – both heartfelt and painfully funny. And this is a squalling little brat of a play that demands attention, even if its voice isn’t always entirely coherent.

 


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