good thing about being a man is that you don’t have to have a baby. But
according to Joe Penhall, whose Birthday at the
Royal Court is the latest in his searing, funny and alarming forays
into bodily functions and the health service, it’s no consolation
to watch how it’s done.
humiliation of childbirth has driven Stephen Mangan’s
curly-headed, highly strung Ed into the strange position of going
through the procedure himself. Yes, he’s completely up the duff on
an NHS maternity ward, already induced, detailed for a caesarean, and
looking forward to the epidural they won’t give him.
high-flying executive wife Lisa (Lisa Dillon) had a difficult birth
with their first child after suffering a series of miscarriages. So
Ed has bitten the bullet, though we are spared the anatomical and
biological detail of how this happened: instead, he’s taken to the
physical inconvenience as only a man could, as a flouncing drama
queen relishing all the symptoms from tears to swollen ankles.
like a Bernard Matthews turkey”, yells Mangan, shifting
uncomfortably around the bed while Llewella Gideon’s lumbering,
disinterested midwife turns him on his tummy to execute an insertion
with latex gloves in order to discover if the baby has moved from the
bowel to the abdominal cavity…
maternity hospital is situated next to a prison, making the point
that new life is starting as a rebuttal of the old lags, though Mark
Thompson’s sleek circular design has the green anodyne cleanliness
of the new tower at University College Hospital.
slightly disgruntled view of the NHS is based on some unlucky
personal experience, but he manages to turn the mishaps and screams
of rage into scintillating comic dialogue, so that the comedy becomes
one of the human condition, not just sour grapes. There’s a cord
around the new baby’s neck that need emergency attention, and the
whole business of its arrival is as fraught with difficulty as
someone turning up at immigration without the right papers.
the piece is beautifully and tactfully acted by the spirited Mangan
and the slinky Dillon in Roger Michell’s finely judged
production, which re-unites the writer and director of the movie
version of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love as well as
of Penhall’s own psychiatric, ground-breaking classic
Blue/Orange; running at just 90 minutes it covers
so much ground you hardly notice the pain.
is not just having a grumble but also querying what children do to
relationships that were forged without them. These are deep waters,
and the final moments of the play are curiously moving. And there’s
a lovely little cameo from Louise Brealey as a registrar steering
well clear of obstetrics, a man’s world, apparently, and full of
politics. Suffer little children.