by Joe Penhall
The Royal Court Theatre, London
Saturday 21st July 2012, matinee
Directed by Roger Michell
Stephen Mangan as Ed
Lisa Dillon as Lisa
Llewella Gideon as Joyce (the midwife)
Louise Brealey as Natasha (the registrar)
L to R: Lisa, Natasha (registrar), Ed, Joyce (midwife)
When my granddaughter first started to speak, she classified the world as boy-girl,-boy-girl, boy-girl. That’s until we put a live ladybird on her eighteen month old hand, and she realised what it was and said “real”. The picture book ladybird (we had one with us) was immediately “toy.” So she started to classify the world as “real-toy, real-toy.” Toy covered actual toys, images in books, and fiction. But the first one, the fundamental divide was “girl-boy”. Just as it is in Joe Penhall’s Birthday.
The premise is a sci-fi one: change one fact only, then develop a fictional world (real-toy) from there. In this case we accept that a scientific advance has enabled men to become pregnant and give birth. There’s sufficient scientific explanation … they have their wives’ eggs implanted in an artificial womb, and give birth by Caesarean section. That’s the only piece of “real” that becomes “toy” in the whole story. After accepting that, all follows logically. Ed, the central figure of the play, isn’t unique or an experiment. This is what people are doing nowadays. His wife, Lisa, had had a spectacularly traumatic birth experience. Ed has volunteered to produce a sibling for their son, Charles. In this alternative toy world, “real” involves medical access to the artificial womb via the rectum, thus subjecting the male “mother” to the many painful indignities women suffer in childbirth. KY Jelly and rubber gloves feature strongly.
Stephen Mangan (Ed) and Lisa Dillon (Lisa)
Stephen Mangan is Ed, the pregnant male in labour. Lisa Dillon is the wife, Lisa. What a cast!
My favourite sitcom of the last two years is “Episodes” with Stephen Mangan. Every character is brilliant in this tale of British scriptwriters in Hollywood, adapting their hit British sitcom for Matt Le Blanc (Joey from Friends). I did my thesis on writers in Hollywood, and I have never been shat upon from such a height as I was from my last lot of American editors. After twenty-five years of very positive relationships with my American publishers and with great editors, the last batch they employed displayed all the ignorance, incompetence, untruthfulness and weasel-mouthed manipulation that we see from the media executives in Episodes. For me, Episodes is all “real”, not “toy”. Most importantly, Matt Le Blanc plays a souped-up public perception of Matt Le Blanc, just as Lucille Ball played a larger-than-life version of herself in I Love Lucy, or Dick van Dyke playing “himself” in the Dick Van Dyke Show… this is an American template. So it’s sitcom heaven.
Then add Lisa Dillon, who as Katherine in “The Taming of The Shrew” for the Royal Shakespeare Company, (https://peterviney.wordpress.com/stage/the-taming-of-the-shrew-rsc-2012/) gave the best performance by a female actor I’ve seen in a year. I’ll never forget her stopping,and piddling on the stage while still doing the lines.
The Sunday Times gave Birthday three stars. For me, this is a five star production of a provocative and sensitive four (it’s not Hamlet or Jerusalem, so not five) star play. On the surface it’s a hilarious comedy, but you don’t have to dig very far to reveal the underlying fear and horror.
We follow Ed and Lisa through labour, childbirth and into the critical post-natal period. We squirmed at the accuracy throughout (Karen more than me even). I’ve seen three born. Karen’s had three and seen our granddaughter born. I met all three of my grandkids in the first half hour of their lives. The play gets it all right. We had the sudden medical intervention at the end of a long induced labour with the first. We had the cord round the neck with the second. It was midnight. The midwife shouted for the tea lady who had said she was a retired nurse (ten years retired) to assist. We had the disapproving midwife with the third, a home delivery.
Have you been induced yet? is the constant refrain of the midwife, repeated every time she comes into the room. (He has). The NHS (National Health Service) combines callousness, idleness, towering arrogance, incompetence and untruthfulness. When they ask if the baby’s infection is MRSA, they don’t get an answer, just legalistic misinformation. So that’s all “real” not “toy”. A brilliant aspect of the play is that having established all that, Ed and Lisa and Ed then become overcome with gratitude to the medical team at the end when it all turns out alright. As we all do when we find ourselves alive at the end of an alarming medical process, which is why the medical profession get away with arrogance. The play is a damning indictment of the process. They deliver a live child in the end. By ignoring the parents, a child with a “fucked up” digestive system due to blanket use of antibiotics.
The African midwife, Joyce, is very overweight, slow-moving, callous and ignores all requests. She’s callous because she’s had seven kids, squirted them out with ease, and may or may not be pregnant now. She’s too fat to tell. She’s not a cipher either. When Lisa finally has to leave the room, she starts to give her own views. She confides that she finds white people “look very white” in hospital, and soon has Ed stuttering that some of his best friends are Africans.
The registrar is young and inexperienced, and doesn’t like children. These are the hospital professionals. The consultant is a ‘condescending bastard’ (Ed’s words) who is far too arrogant to attend. I remember our first. He ordered an induction because he “knew” the baby was two weeks overdue. When the baby was born, covered in vernix, the young Australian doctor who delivered him (the only efficient and pleasant doctor in the process), assured us he was two weeks early, which is what we’d said all along. I still remember the slimy consultant bothered to attend the next day to say ‘You won’t be able to have natural deliveries. You’ll need Caesareans.’ He hadn’t been there. That was all he had to say. We had two more with natural deliveries, the third at home. He was a condescending bastard if ever I met one.
Stephen Mangan with prosthetic tum and oozing mammaries
It’s so easy to focus the review on Stephen Mangan. There are two approaches to screenwork. First is where you enter the role and lose yourself so as to be unrecognizable. Second is the star route, so as to be always recognizable as … Charlie Chaplin, John Cleese, Martin Freeman … whoever, regardless of the role. That takes us back to Matt Le Blanc in Episodes. Mangan has the good fortune to possess a wonderful comic face and personna. You can’t imagine any director shaving his head, adding a beard, a limp and a Yorkshire accent. Mangan remains Mangan as he runs the full gamut of late pregnancy hormonal / emotional changes. A superb, masterly performance. And it’s all real. The tetchy phase (I TOLD you to bring my magazines), the swearing phase, offing and blinding with full force, the “This is all your fault … never touch me again!’ phase, the constant worry about the baby’s movements and the monitor, the crying phase. The concerned parent who doesn’t want to be over-ruled and have the child pumped with antibiotics on birth phase.
Lisa Dillon as the career wife, is just as brilliant as Mangan. Her role requires great sublety. She is the “man” in the labour ward role, just as much as Mangan is ‘the woman’, but she also has to demonstrate genuine vulnerability on her own birth experience. Her love and fears for their first child are writ large. But, as the logical non-hormonal one, she over-rules Ed and accepts massive antibiotics for their new child. She is the one who has to try to deal with Ed’s mood swings, to calm him, fit the TENS machine, go through the relaxation exercises. She’s also the one who has to lose her temper and try and cut through the hospital’s stonewall of apparent indifference. It’s a subtle thing … whenever the nurse or doctor speak, they address Lisa first. Ed is just looking on. That’s what happens.
The play should be compulsory viewing for teenagers. Among all the prodding, poking and puking, there is a sensitive tale about people in love, confronted with industrial scale childbirth.
One curmudgeonly caveat: the ending is slightly a damp squib. It works for Ed and Lisa’s relationship, and reaffirms their love after the traumatic process, but it’s very low key. Even bringing up the sound effect tape of a squalling baby (which we hear softly off stage) might have helped.
There was a bit ten or fifteen minutes in, probably when they had to get in several bits of background explanation, where the dialogue lost its easy and real flow somewhat too. It’s the kind of thing where you’d want to make a few tweaks after seeing it a few times with actors in performance (though they have already printed the script).
5 out of 5. A complete playscript with cast notes for just £3.