Stories review at National Theatre, London – ‘Nina Raine’s frustrating new play’
Anna (Claudie Blakley) is a 39-year-old woman with a successful – albeit unspecified – career in theatre, a loving family and a comfortable middle class existence. But she still feels something is missing. Unfortunately the very same could be said for Nina Raine’s play about Anna’s quest to conceive a child.
Following the success of Consent at the National Theatre and in the West End, Raine’s new play is told through a succession of encounters with possible sperm donors (all played by Sam Troughton), conversations with family and friends, and flashbacks to a previous relationship with Anna’s ‘last chance’ at having kids the conventional way: a man-child named Tom.
As with Anna’s chosen method of conception, the basic ingredients are present. Overall, the cast is strong and Stephen Boxer and Brian Vernel, in particular, put in enjoyable performances as the always-affable-even-when-he’s-crass dad and the straight-talking brother. And Blakley makes Anna convincingly naive enough to explain her abjectly awful taste in men despite her otherwise high-functioning lifestyle.
Furthermore, Jeremy Herbert’s sliding set design of geometric MDF shapes is ideal for conveying the cookie-cutter existence of Anna and her companions.
In many ways, the play’s worst sin could be considered a generalised beigeness, were it not that the protagonist and the people surrounding her are so infuriating and phenomenally unlikeable.
Following her split with Tom, the commitment-phobe who just wants someone to chat with about Noel Coward and Kenneth Tynan, Anna goes to see a bereaved actor who arrives thinking she’s offering him a new job; a flake from the music biz who is flattered at the request to be someone’s ‘baby daddy’ and, worst of all, a Knausgard-reading director whose prime anecdote involves telling Woody Allen how to direct a scene about the Holocaust.
Why we’re meant to care about Anna – a woman who off-handedly jokes about heading to the barbers in New Cross to get herself a black baby before switching to a last-ditch insemination plan involving ‘the gays’ – and her desire to reproduce remains a mystery.
Anna browses for online sperm like she’s shopping for new heels on Boden.com, only with an uncomfortably eugenics-based approach to what she and her family come across. “Pippy” (to use her toe-curling nickname) wouldn’t, for example, like a properly dark-skinned sperm donor, but she would consider one who looks ‘nicely tanned’.
A late attempt at introducing a meta-narrative reflecting on the different passages of life – childhood, childbearing and death – suggests that at the core of the piece lie some fascinating, but chronically underdeveloped, ideas.
Compare Stories to, for example, Simon Stone’s Yerma and it starts to look as empty as the specimen jar Anna brandishes triumphantly aloft at the play’s conclusion.