What is it with Stephen Mangan and hospitals? This time we’re not on Green Wing and the wily Guy Secretan bears little resemblance to the hormonal, lactating, swollen breasted Ed in Joe Penhall’s latest offering, which depicts a time in the near-future where men take parenting to another realm; where men can be mothers too.
In Birthday, Penhall puts gender, parenting, the NHS and the humiliations of birth – cue latex gloves and anal examinations – under the microscope of the stage, and lets us untangle them with modern mindsets.
The play begins with a heavily pregnant Ed sprawled on a hospital bed. We learn that through the development of artificial wombs, men can now carry and give birth to a baby via C-sections – quite routinely. Expectant parents, Ed and Lisa already have one child, who Lisa delivered in a traumatic blur, and both refuse for her to experience it all again. Lisa, epitomises a generation of career-driven women whose brushes with pregnancy, multiple miscarriage and distressing birth have bred new ways of attaining 2.4 children.
A richly comical start gradually gives way to sarcasm, tantrums, and mutual feelings of jealousy and guilt between the couple. As complications arise, and the midwife asks Ed for the fourth time ‘have you been induced yet?’ we watch him descend into breathy pants of pain as he clasps his hairy, distended stomach in distress. His cries for pain relief are fruitless – scoring a Panadol instead of a much requested epidural.
Stereotyped gender roles begin to blur as Lisa, incensed by her husband’s vulnerability and the midwife’s level of incompetence, spews a ferocious rant in Thatcher-esque tones, only to receive a shoulder-shrug and a squeak of a shoe, as the midwife turns proudly on her heels and abandons them once more. Whilst Ed, weary and violated after coming round from an emergency cesarean, finally caves: surgical gloves scatter the stage and hospital pillows break the fourth wall in a flush of frustration from a lack of information; nursing bordering on neglect and a newborn baby who can’t be held.
Mangan is perfectly cast as Ed; his ease at delivering witty, understated humour which can all too easily switch to hysteria and back to banality is a real delight to watch. What we miss however is the epiphany moment: how has this changed Ed, as a man, as a father – as a mother? This is left sorely unexplored.
But Penhall’s latest attack smacks of relevancy. Where can science take us next and can the NHS handle it; can it even manage something as integral as birth right now in its current state?
Whatever your feelings, Birthday is a bundle of joy, which also brings a tear to the eye.
Birthday runs until 11 August at:
The Royal Court
Tel: 020 7565 5000
Image by Johan Perrson