Cootchy-Cootchy-Christ-Almighty. How’s this for the horrors of happy families? If Josh Azouz’s startling second play seems, at first, to key into the warped world of new parents – that headswim of sleep-deprivation and stress – it slowly slips into something far stranger and far, far darker. An axe hangs high up at the back of the stage – "in case of emergencies".
Buggy Baby is the story of a refugee family – but it doesn’t look like gritty realism. Nur fled from Ethiopa with a young baby in tow. Her friend Jaden lost his partner en route. But they made it to Britain, to a small flat of their own and a shot at a new beginning – a chance to form a family of sorts and give Baby Aya the best start in life. They burst out of a wardrobe into their new home – a Narnian expanse of baby pink carpet.
Parenting, though, isn’t plain sailing. "F**king wind me," rasps Jasmine Jones’ romper-suited toddler in a gruff cockney accent. Whether wobbling off on her own accord, rocking with laughter for no reason at all or exploding into wails of hot, unstoppable tears, Jones plays the baby like a classical clown. She confides in us like a confessional stand-up, voicing her needs ('Change me, I sharted') at unhearing ears. Wearing a pink helmet to protect Aya’s misshapen head, she’s hilarious, loveable and defenceless all at once.
If it’s spinny, it’s because Azouz constantly switches the perspective. Aya’s infant-eye view of the world bleeds into her mother’s – exhausted from days spent at college, and nights spent mothering. When she’s away, Jaden’s head takes over as he trips chewing khat for hours each day, growing increasingly jittery about the bunnies that come to steal his stash.
Ned Bennett turns their reality into a theatrical rollercoaster. Max Johns’ hallucinatory design starts out as a baby sensory session – big, bouncy balloons, cutesy tunes and rainbow lights – but it slides into some kind of sensory assault. Giles Thomas and Jess Bernberg max the sound and lights to make Buggy Baby a visceral watch that swings from humour to horror in a flash. Screwing clowning is shot through with black-outs and squeals, and horrible humanoid bunnies – their heads made of tights with lumpen, leggy ears – loom out of the darkness like Donnie Darko’s babysitters. It’s never less than crowd-pleasing – firing toy guns our way and chucking inflatables through the crowd.
The effect is to completely bamboozle, to swing us about until things stop making total sense. Bennett, essentially, is creating contemporary Theatre of Cruelty, like some kind of day-glo, techno Antonin Artaud, and it works wonders – especially for a story like this. It gets horribly, hauntingly under your skin.
You’re so busy disentangling the real from the surreal that you never stop to separate the abnormal from the normal, let alone the abusive from the plain useless. The awful reality dawns all too slowly, stretching any liberal sensibilities to the absolute max, but by then it's too late. All the axes in the world won’t undo the damage. You leave with that hanging over your head. Extraordinary.
Buggy Baby runs at the Yard Theatre until 31 March.