Joe Penhall returns to the Royal Court with his second mainstage play in a six month period. After Haunted Child, which was about a father going off the rails in front of his bewildered wife and young son, the challenges of parenting are once again at the centre of Birthday. It also puts the twin crises of masculinity and the state of the NHS under the microscope, too, as it imagines a new future in which fathers can take an even bigger role in the responsibilities of childbearing by actually gestating their children on behalf of their busy career partners.
Louise Brealey (Natasha), Stephen Mangan (Ed) and Lisa Dillon (Lisa) in Birthday at Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
We watch, with a mixture of amusement and bemusement as Stephen Mangan’s heavily pregnant Ed finds himself suffering hormonal mood swings and abdominal pains as he waits to give birth in a hopelessly understaffed NHS maternity ward, as his partner Lisa (played by Lisa Dillon) offers concerned support. The only two other people we meet are a laid back, hilarious African nurse on a double shift (the spot-on Llewella Gideon) and a kindly registrar (Louise Brealey).
Though its a witty premise, you start to wonder after a few minutes if this is more like the basis for a sketch than a fully-fledged play - it soon starts feeling a bit laboured, in every sense. But relax into it, and it becomes thoughtful and provocative as well as fun. There’s a stinging sense of lived experience as the play - inspired by Penhall’s own maternity ward experiences as a spectator at the difficult births of his two kids - reveals some of the horrors of the ordeal, which are forgotten in the joy of the baby’s arrival.
All the pain, after all, has a miraculous pay-off. A birth of a play can be similarly tortuous, and this one has a great pay-off in the opportunity it proves for a pair of really lovely, tender yet tough performances from Mangan and Dillon. As directed by Roger Michell, they capture beautifully the range of emotions from impatience and pain to terror and joy that the experience entails.