WhatsOnStage Logo
Review Round-Ups

Review Round-up: Critics attend Penhall's Birthday

WhatsOnStage logo
Joe Penhall’s new play Birthday - which sees the male and female roles in childbirth reversed - opened at the Royal Court last week (28 June 2012, previews from 22 June).

Directed by Roger Michell, the play, which features a couple in the tense, final hours before the arrival of their new baby, stars Stephen Mangan, Lisa Dillon, Llewella Gideon and Louise Brealey.

The production is designed by Mark Thompson, with lighting by Hugh Vanstone and sound by John Leonard and runs at the Royal Court Downstairs until 4 August 2012.

Michael Coveney

“One 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... Mark Thompson’s sleek circular design has the green anodyne cleanliness of the new tower at University College Hospital. Penhall’s 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... And the piece is beautifully and tactfully acted by the spirited Mangan and the slinky Dillon in Roger Michell’s finely judged production... Penhall 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.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

“Stephen Mangan, star of Green Wing and Episodes, is fantastically good in this new play from Joe Penhall. But after a tremendous opening, packed with stinging lines, Birthday fades away... Equipped in Roger Michell’s nicely uncomplicated production with a prosthetic belly and breasts, Mangan beautifully conveys the indignities of Ed’s situation, whether he’s squirming on his little bed or complaining loudly that ‘I’ve been fingered more times than an unripe avocado’. Louise Brealey is spot-on as the nervy registrar, and Llewella Gideon has an understated poise as the chilled-out midwife. Penhall writes amusingly about attitudes to childbirth: the differing views of men and women, and also the range of approaches you find among healthcare professionals. The reversal of familiar gender roles is a source of laughs - and a few moments of pathos. When Ed tells Lisa she doesn’t understand his pain, we know that of course she does. But it’s not clear whether Penhall is making a point about Ed’s solipsism or the self-obsession of men in general. This is a one-joke play. Double entendres abound, so it’s perhaps apt to say that the material is stretched too far and some of the humour is laboured. Although fans of Mangan will savour his performance, Birthday feels sketchy and insubstantial.”

Libby Purves
The Times

“Joe Penhall does rather milk the male condition and the play’s ideas waver and collide without resolution... if anything draws you to Joe Penhall’s peculiar play it will be the role-reversal fantasy... Enjoyable to see Mangan as pregnant Ed, Lisa Dillon as his executive wife, and not least Llewella Gideon as the big black midwife. She wins snorts of laughter from us NHS-users: it’s that weary seen-it-all contempt for healthy whingers, speckled intermittently with warmth. Penhall, for all his nifty observant lines, does rather milk the male condition at the expense of wider ideas... the play’s ideas waver and collide without resolution... The role-reversed conversations are often funny... In another direction it goes on about NHS inefficiency; and a further interesting and underdeveloped strand hints at the modern horror of raw biology, combined with a strident sense of rights... Despite these themes, Roger Michell’s direction and a mere 90-minute length, at times the play becomes almost dull; there is a bizarre seven-minute patch after the delivery when we are not told whether the baby survived, and the parents don’t mention it, but moan about the NHS. And the end is plain soppy... ”

Paul Taylor

“For the male members of the audience, Joe Penhall’s new play gives a whole new twist to the idea of a buttock-clenching experience... There’s nothing like role-reversal drama for revealing the double standards and injustices that we accept as perfectly natural and the switch at the centre of this often hilarious and provocative play is wonderfully fertile, so to speak, in that regard. It’s a tribute to Penhall that you sit there wondering why no one has thought of putting it centre stage (as here in Roger Michell’s very funny and crisply focused production) before... The excellent Stephen Mangan is droll casting as blokey Ed... Male motherhood is still, we gather, a fairly new possibility and the NHS (at which Penhall takes several swipes) seems to be encouraging it on the half-baked grounds that deliveries are quicker and free up beds. It struck me that it might have been profitable to have set the play further down the line so that we could see whether the disproportionate power of a complaining male lobby is resulting in an invidious two-tier system. But Birthday is full of joys – including Llewella Gideon’s laid-back seen-it-all black midwife and Louise Brealey’s direct young registrar who cheerfully admits to pitying people with children. Go.”

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

“... is this 90-minute adult comedy — or at least I think it is a comedy — any good as drama? That may be less certain. Mr Penhall cleverly pursues an idea explored by that celebrated Seventies advertising poster which showed a heavily pregnant bloke... Mr Penhall strives for — and achieves — laughs... Mr Mangan, who is known for his TV comedy work, delivers the laughter lines well. Miss Dillon plays his foil with restraint. Ed is a gagster, full of confidence, shouting and swearing at authority. He seems a puerile fellow, full of a sense of entitlement, too cocky by half. This, dramatically, is the problem. Would such a man ever obey his wife’s ‘bullying’ orders, as we are told Ed has done, and agree to have their second child?... But what about the truth of the characters in this tale?... Of the couple’s wider family we see nothing and hear little. Not once is the effect on the unborn child of this unorthodox birth mentioned. That seems a wasted opportunity. Birthday, directed here by Roger Michell and staged with medical cleanliness, is sparky, interesting and pretty watchable (provided you do not faint). But it feels more like a probe than a full caesarean.”

- Rosie Bannister

Tagged in this Story