A play about an unconventional birth plan paves the way for all manner of potential storylines – adoption, surrogacy, fostering – but, judging from the collective howl of laughter emanating from the audience at the opening of Joe Penhall’s Birthday, a pregnant Stephen Mangan had not crossed anyone’s mind.
When Ed and Lisa experience complications during the birth of their first child, they decide to take a radically different approach as they try for their second. Set in a world where male bodies can be implanted with artificial wombs, Penhall’s comedy plays with gender reversal to send notions of patriarchy and paternity quite literally spiralling out of control.
A revolving stage provides the basis of Mark Thompson’s maternity ward set, which gradually comes under attack by Mangan’s hormonal Ed who puffs, pants and screams his way through the production. It is somewhat worrying how well Mangan pulls off being in labour, the anxiety and anger building up inside his rotund prosthetic belly until it’s fit to burst, and burst it does as surgical gloves and medical monitors are sent flying.
Though less convincing as an authoritative breadwinner than Mangan is as an expectant father, Lisa Dillon propels all the masculinity that her petite frame affords into her role as the reassuring but patronising bystander whose job it is to hold her husband’s hand.
While Penhall’s play bases itself on a wholly improbable premise, all other aspects of the situation resonate familiarity, as the present state of the NHS is put under scrutiny by the glaring hospital lights. The damaging spending cuts, never-ending waiting times and deadly superbugs, which, as the play draws attention to, are so often criticised in the media, add an element of seriousness to an otherwise laugh-inducing situation.
Though she does little to help the poor perception of the public health service, you can’t help but warm to the couple’s insincere midwife Joyce, played with a certain swagger by Llewella Gideon, who very almost steals the comic limelight from Mangan with her incessant orifice poking.
No doubt there were a few men squirming in the stalls at the thought of the scientific advancements suggested in Birthday, but fortunately for them it is likely that “the worst ever hangover plus gastroenteritis” will be as close as they’ll ever come to pregnancy.