by Joe Penhall.
Royal Court (Jerwood Theatre Downstairs) Sloane Square SW1W 8AS To 11 August 2012.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Sat & 19, 26 July, 4 Aug 2.30pm.
Audio-described 28 July 2.30pm.
Captioned 25 July.
Post-show Talk 17 July.
Runs 1hr 30min No interval.
TICKETS: 020 7565 5000.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 29 June.
Not such a happy birth day.
Fatherhood is evidently important right now for playwright Joe Penhall; last year’s Haunted Child featured an absent father. Here, the dad’s very present. Birthday might have been written to illustrate the feminist line that if men and women gave birth alternately, no family would exceed three children.
Lisa had one child, in the wake of a series of difficulties, so modern science is enabling Ed to have the next. The play starts as the child’s due, Mark Thompson’s antiseptic hospital set swinging his bed round to reveal the pregnant Ed.
Some decades ago, at the ICA, the ‘Mother Goose and her Children’ section of a show called Merrie Pranckes drew attention to a closeness in the techniques of Brecht and pantomime. Penhall’s play swings between the travesty of pantomime and Brecht’s aim of seeing things differently as Ed lurches anxiously, and prosthetically, towards giving birth.
Stephen Mangan’s ideal as Ed; tall, with cherubically boyish features beneath tousled curls of hair. He’s all set to be set-up, responding with outrage, disbelief and fear as Llewella Gideon’s midwife calmly produces implements to stick helpfully up his rear.
It’s pantomimic, but as Lisa Dillon sits calmly by his side talking of her turn at pregnancy, then preparing for the journey home with exquisite clothing and make-up, the sense of fuss and outrage settles more on male expectations than actual physical suffering.
Hospital procedures fall within Penhall’s sights. Gideon has an imperturbable calm that might be a judgment on Ed’s panics, an expression of Joyce’s workload or a sign she’s past caring.
Similarly, when a doctor eventually breezes in, Louise Brealey’s registrar looks about old enough to be seeking work experience, and brings apparent confidence and a smile born of avoiding possible litigation as she skirts round the possibilities of infection, while casually mentioned their luck in locating her as she was about to go home.
The performances are all expert and Roger Michell’s production has the marks of practiced theatrical comedy. But, stranded between, rather than combining, laughter and anger, the piece takes ninety minutes to make a very limited number of points.
Ed: Stephen Mangan.
Lisa: Lisa Dillon.
Joyce: Llewella Gideon.
Natasha: Louise Brealey.
Director: Roger Michell.
Designer: Mark Thompson.
Lighting: Hugh Vanstone.
Sound: John Leonard.
Voice coach: Alan Woodhouse.
Dialect coach: Tim Charrington.
Assistant director: Adele Thomas.
Assistant lighting: Max Narula.