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Birthday, Royal Court

Joe Penhall
Directed by Roger Michell

Pros: Trustworthy actors perform a compact piece with big laughs at the expense of gender stereotypes.

Cons: Slightly unclear what Penhall’s point (if there is one) is!

Our Verdict: A play which hopes to question the roles in childbirth, it’ll make the audience think but not too hard. An overall positive experience!

Courtesy of Alastair Muir for the Daily Telegraph

The Royal Court is a brilliant theatre. Situated on Sloane Square, it is well known for its talented new writings, a number having transferred elsewhere for longer runs. I know I can trust the stuff they put on so I was looking forward to seeing Birthday, the latest play from writer Joe Penhall whose previous shows in this theatre include Haunted Child and Some Voices.

With a small cast of four, I recognised three of them. I had seen Stephen Mangan years before in The Normal Conquests at the Old Vic and knew him to be a likeable stage actor with great comic timing. His portrayal of Ed, a heavily pregnant man, was both funny and realistic (well, as realistic as you could get in this surreal universe where men can become pregnant!). He delivers the lines in a manner akin to a woman giving birth, but different enough to challenge the audience’s perception of the scenario.

Meanwhile Lisa, Ed’s high-flying wife portrayed by Lisa Dillon, is trying to balance being the breadwinner with also being a mother to their previous child. She barely tolerates her husband’s hormonal cries or the midwife’s laissez-faire attitude towards the birth, which leads to some hilarious moments. Dillon’s portrayal of this strong yet struggling wife is finely balanced on the pinpoint between womanhood and family head (a typically masculine role). Llewella Gideon and Louise Brealey both also had excellent characters and it’s a shame Brealey is only in it from half way through; her optimistic yet thorough registrar character fitted the actress nicely and I’d have liked to see more of her.

Despite strong performances across the board and some wonderfully amusing moments however, I am not entirely sure what Penhall is trying to say. The script seems to be built to investigate the mental strain of childbirth on both genders. He seems to be searching for the similarities and the differences; which gender better deals with what, for example. The conclusion, it appears, is that we’re both as bad (or good) as one another, but that perhaps women cope more with the physical needs of labour because, as one character states, ‘It’s always very difficult for men…They feel violated. They have such different expectations of life’.

At the same time however, Penhall makes several attacks on the NHS, for reasons that are not entirely apparent. Whilst the first conversation we see on stage is about ‘going private’ due to NHS inadequacy, there are also moments towards the end of the play, such as the appearance of Brealey’s enthusiastic and efficient registrar, where the writing shows the NHS in a far more positive light. So whether the attacks are about a system struggling to provide sufficient care because of lack of support and funding, or whether it’s more about them just being rubbish remains unclear, and subsequently unnecessary.

So as much as I enjoyed this play, I didn’t quite see what Penhall is getting at. It had some very special moments in it, and the concept, as surreal as it was, had the potential to break boundaries and challenge the stereotypes of gender and childbirth. Sadly however, the ideas seemed either underdeveloped by the short script or engulfed by too many other thoughts. To end on a positive note, I absolutely loved the performances and the direction had lovely moments to it and for that reason I do believe you should give it a go.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and comments in the section below!

Birthday runs at the Royal Court until 11th August 2012.
Box Office: 020 7565 5000 or book online at http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/birthday

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