Friday, 22 June 2012

Birthday at the Court.

To the Royal Court to see Joe Penhall's latest play Birthday. Set in a near future, it's a dystopian and, at times, disturbing role reversal satire. 

Ed, played with boyish self-importance, by Stephen Mangan, is in the early stages of labour. His executive wife Lisa, thoughtfully realised by Lisa Dillon, can no longer give birth following the traumatic delivery of the couple's first child and so they've opted to be guinea pigs for this womb transplant proceedure, recently offered on the NHS.

Whilst he twists, turns, moans and frets, she tries, mostly in vain, to sympathise with the indignity, fear and pain. If anybody were in any doubt that giving birth is not a shared experience the simple device of switching the genders operates as a salutary reminder to the men in the audience of the often traumatic experiences women go through in childbirth. It is, by turns, hysterical and horrific.

Penhall's approach though is incredibly even handed and Lisa quickly loses patience with her husband's increasing sense of discomfort demonstrating that concern and indifference are not gender assigned roles. Throw in an uncommunicative African midwife, immune to abuse and unconcerned at the singular worries of middle class parents and an obstetrician who pities the sacrifices those with children have to make and you have all the ingredients for a rather wonderful and thought provoking hour and a half.

Behind it all though is a stinging, and perhaps surprising, attack on an under resourced NHS. How ever much enjoyment is gleaned from watching a self-centred man having to undergo the pillage of childbirth you can't help but share the couple's frustration at the lack of information, support and pain relief on offer. Things work out well in the end, but it's clear that Penhall, who recently became a father himself, has written a play heavily scarred by his own observations of state funded maternity care.

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