In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises), (Gate Theatre)

Nina Segal’s debut play considers the ethics of having a child

Alex Waldmann and Adelle Leonce in In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises)
Alex Waldmann and Adelle Leonce in In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises)
© Bill Knight

The baby cries like a car alarm: WAA WAA WAA. Its head lights up like an indicator light, flashing orange for attention. There’s no avoiding it and no escape. Certainly, no chance of sleep. Mum and dad, their eyes like burnt holes in blankets, try everything they can think of to stop the noise: feeds, stories, lullabies, hush. Nothing works. Nada. WAA. WAA. WAA.

What are the ethics of having a child? Five years ago, Duncan Macmillan‘s Lungs put an environmental case against: the worst thing you can do is create a new carbon footprint; add to an already overpopulated planet. Now, Nina Segal wrestles with a wider argument: how does one bring a child into a world of pain? If life itself is a struggle – and life today, in a crocked world on the brink of getting worse, is especially so – isn’t having a child irresponsible?

Segal’s debut – almost a poem for two people, spoken in the third person – turns the question over, around and around. Its shape is a long night of the soul: two parents sat cotside, desperate for their newborn to sleep, and it catches the agony, the exasperation and the guilt of that. It stands as a metaphor too, of course: for a depression or a dark patch – be it personal or political – that stretches on and on with no end in sight. The title, promising daybreak, allows some crack of hope.

Ben Kidd‘s production moves towards mess, chaos in fact. An empty stage, props (and, indeed, actors) wrapped in cling-film at the side, fills up as the couple build a life together and a home. They accumulate stuff: mementoes and furniture, rugs and fairy lights. Their child arrives in an Amazon box: "the best thing we’ve ever made." It’s a lifestyle choice, even an accessory, and it necessitates more stuff: cots, clothes and toys. The stage looks like a disaster zone. Alex Waldmann and Adelle Leonce sit slumped and wave upwards, two survivors screaming for rescue: "Help us," they yell. "We’re tired."

The play’s laced with the idea of connection: a bottle breaks, a baby cries, "and the two things are not connected" – that sort of thing. In dismissing the connection, of course, Segal only emphasises it, stressing the way we pretend otherwise. All this stuff, all our children, all our hopes for their futures, it’s all inextricably tied up with the world’s wider inequities. We perceive a one-way relationship – that wars elsewhere might impose on our lives – but it’s as likely the reverse: our lives ripple off in to distant wars. In the Night Time… is a fever dream of liberal guilt.

The central question’s taboo – children are deemed intrinsically good, and questioning that, publicly, is not the done thing. However, the thinking around it is somewhat banal; the anxieties will be familiar to every parent ever, let alone every Guardian reader. Segal segues artfully from the domestic sphere to the world order, but her writing style can be prosaic and, despite moments, the overall is repetitive – an expression of the endless cycles of both parenthood and politics, no doubt, but, as theatre, somewhat tiresome. You find yourself willing the sun to come up.

In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises) runs at the Gate Theatre until 27th February.