The star of Joe Penhall’s new play Birthday at the Royal Court theatre is most definitely the pregnancy body suit (complete with saggy breasts) worn by lead actor Stephen Mangan… closely followed by the lackadaisical African midwife Joyce, who just can’t seem to remember if anyone’s been induced or not.
The whole 90-minute play is set around the hospital bed of husband and father Ed, who, deeply traumatised by his wife’s experience of giving birth to their first son Charlie, has offered to have their second baby, all made possible by recent scientific developments (made real by reports from the Guardian) that allow a man to harvest his wife’s ovaries.
Ed’s discomfort as he goes into labour and the stereotypical role reversal that has him hormonal, tetchy and obsessed with cleanliness while wife Lisa is only half listening after a hard day at work, are very funny to begin with, but soon the audience is visibly squirming at the awful things being done to Ed to bring on the birth and the patronising way the hospital staff talk over him to his wife, the one not rendered irrational by pain.
Following the rollercoaster of labour and delivery allows the play to touch on middle-class fear of the incompetencies of the NHS, the terror and euphoria of having a baby (who hasn’t wanted to kiss their registrar when it’s all over?) and the angst of becoming parents, with the inherent, niggling worry of whether it’s all worth it.
Everything about the play is spot-on and politically current, but really it’s one funny what-if sketch stretched out into a play that doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know… unless you’re about to become first-time parents of course!