Stories about motherhood and babies are not rare, but still it seems that lately I have seen 3 or 4 plays and films about new or expecting mothers. (And no, I didn’t see What To Expect When You Are Expecting). Most of them talk about mothers who can’t be away from their babies. The one that rang the most true was the new mother who was desperate for a night out. Either way, Birthday, a new play by Joe Penhall, directed by Roger Michell, came to fill a gap in those stories: what happens during the 24 hours around child birth. Even if this child birth is not the traditional kind.
To say much more would spoil it, all you need to know is that Ed (played by Stephen Mangan) and Lisa (played by Lisa Dillon) are at the hospital expecting their second child. Labour has been induced, nerves are frayed, the miracle of birth looks more like a horror film and no one else seems to understand how serious the situation is.
Joe Penhall conceives a central conceit, commits to it and creates a world around it that makes it entirely believable (I particularly enjoyed the references to the NHS management of resources, they gave credibility and an air of ordinariness to something that is quite far out). He uses the conceit to get laughs, he uses the laughs to say things that won’t be said otherwise. And the most interesting things are not about parenting but about the couple’s dynamic. Enough said, anything more would be spoilers.
Stephen Mangan and Lisa Dillon fit together like a glove. If you have seen the last episode of the tv series Dirk Gently, you have an idea of their chemistry. They manage changes in tone and pace with great ease, and while neither does something I haven’t seen them do before, they relish their roles and the play in a way that’s hard to resist. Louise Brealey (of Sherlock fame) plays the junior doctor with the right mix of confidence, enthusiasm and hesitance and Llewella Gideon steals many of the scenes she is in.
None of these means the play is perfect: it could have been bolder and more outrageous, push more of the audience’s buttons. Some times the text builds into a line the way sitcom writing does. It touches some areas and then leaves them unexplored. For example, intense situations result in knee jerk reactions, and the middle class couple might not be as enlightened as they would like to think they are. But that’s swept under the carpet.
Regardless, it’s a very amusing play, the laughs are genuine, the pleasure of the performances undeniable. One final mention should go to the very impressive prosthetics: we were sitting at the first row and as much as I tried, I couldn’t see the artifice. Well done.