Monday, 9 July 2012

Theatre review: Birthday

The Royal Court made a big deal of keeping the plot of Joe Penhall's new play on their main stage, Birthday, a tightly-wrapped secret until the the show opened so that it would catch audiences by surprise. Which is fine for previews and up until Press Night, but once the publicity photos were released the secret was very much out as well. So for the majority of the audience the play will have to stand or fall by its own merits. If you're planning to see the show and have so far remained unspoiled, I'd recommend skipping the rest of this review. Vanessa didn't know the twist and it was fun to hear her reaction as the set revolved and she twigged what was going on. Penhall's subject here is the current state of the NHS, and based on his experience of the birth of his own child he gives us the story of Ed (Stephen Mangan) and Lisa (Lisa Dillon) who have just gone into a maternity hospital expecting their second child.

Lisa had a difficult birth the first time and this is where the play's high concept kicks in: This is an alternate universe where some sort of womb implant has made it possible for men to become pregnant, and it's Ed who's carrying their daughter. Birthday turns out to be a pretty full-on comedy that gets its laughs from reversing the traditional male and female roles and the stereotypes of what they do and say during childbirth.

Mangan obviously has the showiest role and does a great comic job, although Dillon also has her moments as the exhausted partner on the receiving end of her husband's frustration, as the hours draw on with no sign of anything happening, and there begin to be concerns about the baby. They're ably backed up by Louise Brealey as a young doctor with no maternal instincts of her own, while Llewella Gideon threatens to steal the show as an initially infuriating midwife Ed ends up bonding with. Gideon was Vanessa's favourite, she said the play didn't have much in common with her own experience of childbirth but she recognised the relationship with the midwife. At times in Roger Michell's production the gender reversal makes for some interesting commentary on the different expectations we have of the sexes in terms of handling pain, balancing the work/home life ratio etc. But for the most part it's played for laughs and although enjoyable, it does end up being a single gag stretched out: After the story has gone into a few more serious diversions about Ed and Lisa's relationship and how they've coped with the child they already have, and a hospital hygiene issue seems to threaten the new baby, Penhall returns to getting laughs from a hormonal pregnant man, even in the play's closing scenes.

Ultimately Birthday manages not to lose steam for its full 95 minutes but it does feel like a strong concept that doesn't quite live up to its promise; the actors, director and Paul Hyett's prosthetics are what you come out remembering more than the script.

Birthday by Joe Penhall is booking until the 11th of August at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

No comments:

Post a Comment