Having spent the afternoon with my friend, who is studying to become a midwife, I headed off to the Royal Court to see Joe Penhall’s Birthday which details the experiences of a couple having a baby on an NHS ward. But Lisa and Ed’s is far from a normal pregnancy. As Lisa was left unable to have any more children after the difficult birth of their first son, Ed stepped up to the plate and nine months later is lying heavily pregnant in the same room that his wife had, induced and ready for a caesarean.
After an impactful start, the play did seem to lose direction and at 90 minutes long sometimes seemed more like a heavily extended sketch. Yet in general Birthday remained entertaining throughout (largely due to the talented Stephen Mangan, supported by Lisa Dillon, Llewella Gideon and Louise Brealey). Mangan was utterly believable as a pregnant man going into labour, capturing the pain, frustration and humiliation of his ordeal. Dillon, meanwhile, was pitch-perfect as the partner providing ineffectual but well-meaning support while struggling to put up with Mangan’s increasingly melodramatic responses to the situation. Brealey and Gideon were also excellent as the nervy registrar and laid-back midwife respectively.
Birthday perhaps plays too much on inverted gender stereotypes, although the role reversal does allow for an examination of the differing expectations of childbirth of the mother and father, that may have been less prominent if the play had featured a normal birth, and the switch is an ideal way to reveal the numerous double-standards that society takes for granted. The play also looks at the stresses that pregnancy and child-rearing put on a couple, with Mangan and Dillon making a totally believable partnership. If anything, the play brings to the fore the extent to which giving birth is a team effort, and the expectations and mutual reliance of the couple involved.
I’ve never been present at a labour, but recently became familiar with the workings of the NHS while sitting for an interminably long time with a friend in A&E overnight. Waiting to be seen by a doctor, and being ignored unless facing the repetitive round of questioning from nurses every couple of hours, is enough to push anyone over the edge, and I wasn’t the one in awful pain. I’ve also heard stories from the aforementioned midwifery student, that suggest giving birth in an NHS hospital can be far from a walk in the park (not that it ever could be…) despite the best efforts of overburdened staff. The maternity hospital in the play perfectly encapsulated the NHS’ pitfalls, but clever dialogue prevents the play from becoming one long rant.
Even the most routine of births is rather a dramatic occasion, and audiences are fascinated by One Born Every Minute. Yet Mark Lawson has suggested that while childbirth is “among the greatest and most important dramas of many people’s lives” it is “in theatrical terms, boring: in drama, there needs to [be] conflict, suspense, surprise”. While the gender twist in Birthday provides an element of surprise it occurs at the outset of the play. After the audience becomes used to a pregnant man, the play really becomes a straightforward look at the tensions and tribulations facing a couple going into childbirth.
Penhall himself has argued that it would be impossible to find backing for a play about a heterosexual couple giving birth to a healthy child. I’m not sure if the gender-reversal is enough to overcome the problems of creating a play around the birth of a child, and this may account for the play’s lack of direction. While there are complications in Ed’s delivery, on the whole the play comprises of the waiting that forms the bulk of most deliveries. Generally, however, Penhall’s witty dialogue and the superb performance from the cast make Birthday a thoroughly entertaining look at childbirth and relationships.