Joe Penhall’s play ‘Birthday’ is a fast and furious ninety minute comedy of true gender role reversal, infused with a dash of drama and pathos, featuring Stephen Mangan, Lisa Dillon, Llewella Gideon and Louise Brealey.
Taking a clever conceit – that men are now capable of carrying children to term in pregnancy, thus creating an intended equality among the sexes – Birthday begins as a ribald, slightly potty mouthed, yet knowing absurdity, before growing into something far more provocative, pointed and dramatic. Stephen Mangan (BBC /HBO’s ‘Episodes’, the sadly deceased ‘Dirk Gently’) is Ed, the quite literally expectant father in the play, his reasons slowly becoming clear for taking this unusual – yet fictionally more commonplace – version of pregnancy with his wife Lisa, played by Lisa Dillon (‘Hawking’, as the scientist’s future wife Jane alongside Benedict Cumberbatch, and ‘Cranford’).
Initially the play is firmly focused on the male reaction to the lack of grace one finds when pregnant, with Ed prodded and poked around through various indignities by his midwife Joyce, played by Llewella Gideon (‘Night Night’) with a delicious, world weary shield from the abuse she clearly receives from prospective parents on a daily basis. At this stage, the play is focussed intently on the gross out, gaining plentiful laughs from the hormonal Ed constantly scratching at his hairy baby bump and the numerous assaults on his orifices, as well as highlighting the male intolerance for pain and discomfort. But later, as the play moves closer to the birth itself, shards of domestic seriousness appear, with the revelation of the trauma of the birth of the couple’s first child, and a typically noble yet flawed male impulse to complete his family to try and stem the emotional aftermath of that event. As Ed’s labour goes on longer however, his anger becomes ever stronger and drama queen-esque, remaining very funny yet also rather cutting.
The result of this is a rather intriguing examination of Britain’s National Health Service, clearly drawn from personal experience, which plays up the over stretching of staff due to sheer weight of numbers and suggesting the situation’s exacerbation from the development of male pregnancy that should, in theory, make the entire process much quicker. It’s around here, with Ed’s labour becoming more and more dramatic that Louise Brealey enters as Natasha, a registrar who quickly takes charge of the situation with a kindly professionalism. More forceful than as Molly Hooper in Sherlock, Natasha becomes the face of reassurance but also impotent uncertainty from the health professionals as complications arise. Louise is also quietly and comedically terrifying at donning a pair of latex gloves and applying a seemingly endless amount of KY Jelly to her hands…
Birthday is a very funny examination of the inequality of the sexes when science has supposedly made everything equal. To say anymore would be to spoil the outcome of this delightful play that exhibits the often forgotten pain that precedes the joy at the birth of a child. All four of the cast are superb, and as a broad examination of gender politics, coupled with laxatives, erection jokes and a furious desire for raspberry tea, it’s probably unsurpassed. It comes very highly recommended.
Louise Brealey kindly posing at the stage door of the Royal Court, July 21 2012.
Originally due to finish on August 4 2012, Birthday is now running until August 11 2012 at the Royal Court Theatre. Ticket availability can be checked and purchased here.
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