“It’s not the same for a man…”
It is a rare treat these days to be able to go into a show not knowing a huge amount about it and so it was with Birthday, just opening for previews now at the Royal Court. The reveal of the central premise was a great surprise and to be honest, if you don’t know it yet and are going to see it soon (although I imagine once it opens it will become impossible to avoid) I’d recommend leaving yourself unspoiled (and then of course coming back to read this later, hehe.)
Set in a modern-day maternity hospital, Ed and Lisa are having their second child, but in this world there are considerably more options open to them and given the difficult circumstances surrounding the birth of Charlie, they have opted for one of these. Thus playwright Joe Penhall takes us on a 90 minute journey through a somewhat alternative view of childbirth, and how men and women deal with it differently, to sometimes comic and sometimes perplexing effect.
What the ‘twist’ turns out to be is that Ed is the one who has been carrying their child via an artificial womb and has booked into the hospital for a caesarian birth. But the hospital is understaffed and overworked, no-one seems quite sure what priority to give male pregnancies and when complications with the birth creep in, what was intended to be the easy solution for this couple becomes infinitely more complex. Roger Michell’s production plays out in Mark Thompson’s spare, hospital-bright set with a revolve, mainly used to indicate the passing of time.
On the one hand, Birthday is quite a funny play. Most of the jokes come from the inversion of the gender roles, Stephen Mangan’s Ed rolling out all the classic comedy cliches about pregnancy which gain more currency from coming from a man and directed to a woman, Lisa Dillon’s Lisa, who is very much the straight-man here as the breadwinner for the family. Llewella Gideon also gets a few laughs as Joyce, the matter-of-fact midwife whose presence isn’t perhaps as calming as it might be.
The truth is that this is the one real joke of the play and so it soon starts to feel somewhat overstretched, especially with the lazy repeated references to the rear entry access to the baby. But a more crucial problem would seem to be the actual purpose of Penhall’s writing in his subversion of the gender roles here, it is never really clear what he is trying to say.
Its major impact on this couple is substantially muted by the fact that Lisa has gone through childbirth herself, so every cry of ‘you have no idea what this is like…’ from her husband can be met with ‘oh yes I do’ which limits how interesting the debate can get about how men and women deal differently with this ordeal. The way the fractiousness between the couple is currently portrayed also means that it is not really a relationship in which we become invested, even as things take a darker turn – a rare moment of genuine emotion from Ed comes too late on to really impact on the play.
Penhall also ends up fudging the point on the NHS, or rather this parallel NHS, with a puzzling attitude towards it and its staff which ends up rather dismissive, something which stuch in my craw a little bit, well a whole lot really (I have midwives in the family, I can’t help it). Louise Brealey feels a little wasted as a junior registrar with little valuable input and so from a relatively bright beginning, the progression of the show resulted in diminishing returns for me.
As a straightforward comedy, Birthday may well have its fans, especially of Mangan’s performance. But for me, it wasn’t funny enough to simply take it that way and my expectations, of a play at the Royal Court after all, were higher (although Penhall’s last work here Haunted Child was not at all a favourite). Any sense of what the playwright was trying to say about gender roles in society or the role of parenthood felt completely lost and thus it was hard not to feel a little underwhelmed by the writing in the end.