Review: Genesis Inc (Hampstead Theatre)
Jemma Kennedy's comedy opens at the north London venue
Nobody could accuse Jemma Kennedy of being under-ambitious: her imaginative, consistently entertaining tragicomedy is stuffed – over-stuffed possibly – with ideas. The title is the name of the upmarket fertility clinic where much of the play is set, and while the main theme of the piece is the struggle of starting a family when nature seems to be failing you and time is running out, Kennedy has many other things on her mind.
What starts out as superior sitcom – Harry Enfield's hilariously out-of-touch fertility specialist offering jawdroppingly insensitive advice to a mixed race couple looking to conceive via IVF- becomes richer and darker as it progresses, gaining the propulsive compulsiveness of a soap opera, albeit an uncommonly funny one. Characters that initially appear to be little more than tropes (the ball-breaking business woman, the nerdy, under-achieving gay teacher, the working class wife trapped in an abusive relationship) move in unexpected but never implausible directions, and as an observer you may find your attitudes and allegiances switching.
The piece covers a lot: the impossibility of buying a central London home unless you are mega-rich, the increasing isolation of childless single women, the way income differences can create schisms in long-standing friendships, the irony that for many women their peak fertility comes just as their career kicks in, greed versus humanity, the importance of community....it's all here and more. It's handled – for the most part – with considerable dexterity and an impressive command of theatrical storytelling, aided by Laurie Sansom's bold but textured staging, and some excellent performances.
Kennedy's writing for characters across a panoply of races, sexual orientations, classes and attitudes is impressive. Everybody sounds authentic but Kennedy is especially adept at catching the acerbic tragi-comic nuances of middle class life ("it's like Hugo Boss and Prada sponsored Songs Of Praise" observes one character after a posh school concert). I haven't laughed this much at a new play for quite some time.
As if all this wasn't enough – and at times I thought it probably was – the play also throbs with a bonkers surrealism: Karl Marx, Susan Sontag, various biblical figures, God himself (Enfield again, divine) and a very vocal set of female reproductive organs all put it an appearance. If you put Alan Ayckbourn at his funniest and Patrick Marber at his most unsparing in a blender with Caryl Churchill and Tony Kushner, then Genesis Inc would probably be the result. It may be slightly bewildering at times but it's never boring.
If Jess Curtis' chilly, corporate-looking set – multiple levels and numerous TV screens – occasionally renders actors inaudible, it strongly evokes a sense of questing, vulnerable human beings cast adrift in an impersonal world of glass and chrome.
The cast doesn't have a weak link: Ritu Arya and Oliver Alvin-Wilson touchingly convey the despair of a couple who probably would be just fine if the issue of procreation hadn't raised its emotive head. Shobu Kapoor provides an unexpectedly kind perspective as Arya's initially disapproving mum. Arthur Darvill does fine, funny, affecting work as conflicted "half Jewish" gay Miles, closeted in his new job as music master of a Catholic school, and Laura Howard is unshowily brilliant as the financially successful best friend who adores him but feels the ovarian call even more potently.
Darvill's Miles is an aspiring songwriter, and having him end the entire show with a self-penned paean to community and acceptance does feel like a stylistic lurch too far since this isn't a full-on musical. The sentimentality of the – admittedly likeable – number feels at odds with the wit, pith and honesty of much of what has gone before.
Kirsty Besterman is laugh-out-loud funny as a patronising clinic receptionist and a pair of women from different ends of history who have apparently won at the maternal lottery. Clare Perkins doesn't entirely convince as a tough-as-leather Aussie business type but is comedy gold as a mouthy, kind, clever woman trapped in a dysfunctional relationship because she has four mouths to feed: her second act takedown of middle-class preciousness regarding their kids is priceless. Arthur Wilson is flawless in a variety of roles but is especially fun as an overworked security guard with a working knowledge of therapy-speak.
If the play never quite feels too clever for its own good, it sometimes seems too scattershot to focus, as though it might have benefited from one more draft. It's still a satisfying, enjoyable night at the theatre though.