The Theatreguide.London Review
Royal Court Theatre Summer 2012
Joe Penhall has written a one-joke comedy. It's a very good joke, and he explores and exploits it for an entertaining and occasionally even moving ninety minutes. But you're likely to remember the clever generating concept more than any of the particulars, comic or serious.
Penhall imagines a near future in which it is medically possible and even common to implant an artificial womb in a man's body so he can carry a baby on its way to a Caesarian birth. Ed and Lisa have one child but Lisa can't have another, so Ed has been pregnant for nine months and now awaits the birth.
And so he is nervous, and impatient, and in pain, and lashing out, and weepy, and demanding painkillers, and put through undignified procedures by infuriatingly impersonal medical staff – and everything else that every about-to-give-birth mother experiences. And Lisa is, in turn, supportive, patronising, envious, exasperated, powerless, frightened, bored and everything else that every expectant father is.
And that's the basic joke. The role reversals generate both the laughter of absurdity and the laughter of recognition as couples in the audience spot something they went through in the more usual manner.
But what raises this play above TV sitcom level is the fact that it isn't all pointless humour. Penhall also manages some moments of seriousness, generally built around fears for the baby's health and safety both before and after the birth. Even more insightfully, the distorting lens of the role reversal brings some things into sharp focus, such as the way all expectant parents are frightened amateurs begging the professionals to guarantee that all will go well.
For the occasional moments when invention flags, Penhall falls back on a couple of guaranteed laugh-generators, poking fun at the easy targets of NHS inadequacies and seen-it-all midwives and doctors. And because these are just easy laughs, without the accompanying insights, they're the weakest bits of the play.
Stephen Mangan has fun combining all the real outrages and irrationalities of a woman in labour with the added indignity and indignation of being a man in this unfamiliar territory, while Lisa Dillon believably combines a husband's irrelevance at this moment with a woman's infinite patience and sensitivity.
Llewella Gideon is droll as an overworked midwife and Louise Brealey sweet as an unexpectedly sympathetic young doctor.
The highest praise for director Roger Michell is that he succeeds in giving the situation a believable reality while mining all its comic and serious potential.
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Review - Birthday - Royal Court 2012