Lisa Evans’ new play, Up the Duff, at York Theatre Royal, concerns the tribulations of four pregnant women characterised by contrast: posh but neurotic career woman, bossy hairdresser in unhappy marriage, cheerfully irresponsible teenager and semi-mysterious stranger. Midwife Sheila not only has their problems to deal with, but a husband whose apparent aims in life are to break every bone in his body via DIY and to arrive in Sheila’s clinic at inapposite moments.
I was not the only one to think before the start that this sort of thing is better done by Hull Truck and the fear that this would be too derivative was increased by the presence of two recent Truckers, Sarah Parks and Lucy Beaumont (both excellent). Some 20 minutes in, at the end of the first scene, this fear seems justified, but Up the Duff emerges as a more subtle and surprising play than its dreadful title suggests.
There is no real story to Up the Duff. Roshin (Shelley Atkinson), Teresa (Kali Peacock) and Jess (Lucy Beaumont) attend Sheila’s clinic, then an unexpected newcomer joins them, Kizzy (Pippa Duffy). Teresa identifies her as a former best friend from schooldays who has moved away. It seems obvious that some major revelation about Teresa and Kizzy is on the way, but Evans is cleverer than that: all we get is a deepening of our knowledge of their characters and relationships.
The life-changing developments that most occupy us are, surprisingly, in the character of menopausal midwife Sheila (Sarah Parks). No more in control of her body than her pregnant charges and with a walking disaster of a husband, she has to face up to a teenage son heading off to Australia for his Gap year and a possible charge of professional incompetence: nicely understated – we never expect her to be found guilty, but can share her worry. The Act 2 opener, when Parks tells the story of a child born dead (the reason for the charge), is beautifully written and played, with the accompaniment of a mournful “You Are My Sunshine” hauntingly effective.
It’s not all on that level, though Parks’ comic tour de force to finish the play runs it close. For the most part, Up the Duff is slight, though enjoyable and well-judged, with Sheila’s husband Graham (amiably played by Colin Tarrant) remaining resolutely two-dimensional.
Damien Cruden’s production can be rather static, but the set-pieces are well handled and, much to his credit, he never pushes the female characters into caricature, all the performances growing in credibility. The use of music is inspired, with the cast expertly performing appropriate songs between the scenes (under Musical Director Christopher Madin they range from Billie Holiday to Minnie Ripperton), with Helen Fownes-Davies’ hitherto drab set positively glowing under Richard G. Jones’ lights during the musical interludes.