Review: Stories (National Theatre)

Claudie Blakley stars in Nina Raine’s new play in the Dorfman

Claudie Blakley and the cast of  "Stories"
Claudie Blakley and the cast of Stories
© Sarah Lee

Anna wants a baby. She thought her partner Tom wanted one too – they even went to the trouble of two years of IVF to get there – until he bottles it at the last minute and decides to leave her instead. Stories, which playwright Nina Raine also directs, is about what happens next.

Anna, played with just the right blend of exhausted desperation and optimism by Claudie Blakley, finds herself in a series of increasingly awkward encounters as she attempts to find someone to help her fulfil her goal. Making up Anna's (not always terribly supportive) support team as she navigates this tricky new territory are her mother (Margot Leicester), father (Stephen Boxer) and much younger brother (Brian Vernel). Their spiky, imperfect but ultimately loving interactions represent a dream of family life that Anna is seeking to engineer for herself, while also underlining the fact that whichever route she chooses to have a child, there are no guarantees about the nature of the relationship that will come of it. Families, it turns out, are fickle.

There's a lot of enjoyment to be had in Raine's witty script, in particular the caustic interactions between the very funny trio of Leicester, Boxer and Vernel. It's unfortunate though, that this play about a woman's struggle to come to terms with her biological yearnings should be so dominated by the performance of a man. Don't get me wrong: it's enormous fun watching Sam Troughton transform himself from man-child ex to sensitive actor to self-absorbed wide-boy musician to awkward art dealer and so on and so on. But by making Tom/Felix/Lachlan/Danny/Corin/Rupert the dramatic focus of the piece, there's just not enough space left to explore what's going on in Anna's head and Stories becomes little more than a sort of upside-down rom com.

Sure, there's a nice symbolism to the fact that men hold so many of the cards in the baby-making game that even in a dramatic representation of that game it's the bit part blokes rather than the female protagonist who get to shine, but if that's the point Raine is trying to make here, she devotes too much time to making it at the expense of the play as a whole. I'd be willing to bet that every woman in the audience will have experienced either first or second hand Anna's heartache and frustration at the way this particular deck seems to be stacked – Stories describes this world without truly analysing it.

The play's structure of short scenes, in which new characters are introduced every few minutes, soon begins to drag, despite the wittiness of Raine's writing and strong performances from the whole cast. Jeremy Herbert's design is slick and functional, but as superficial as the rest of the show; and there's an unsatisfying randomness about the snippets of music that accompany the frequent scene changes. Near the end of the first act we're offered a slice of something dramatically promising in the shape of the little daughter of Anna's best friend Beth (played tonight by Katie Simons), but this device comes too late and never fulfils its potential. If only Raine had been bolder.