‘Men must endure Their going hence, even as their coming hither. Ripeness is all’ Act V, Scene II, King Lear
Dramsoc’s Birthday, by Joe Penhall, explores the unique and surreal experience of male pregnancy and birth. Lisa and Ed, a devoted yet rather quarrelsome couple, decide to undergo the challenging procedure of male artificial insemination. We join them in the highly tense environment of an under-staffed and chaotic NHS ward as the birthing experience is about to commence.
The play opens with a distressed Ed undergoing contractions on his hospital bed while his wife, Lisa, aims to calm his nerves and rationalise his hormone-induced complaints and outcries. Andy Simpson brings the character of Ed to life with an expert sense of comedic impact and timing, and his horrified facial expressions, as he receives the details of what the birthing process will truly involve, has the audience in stitches. Charlotte Bartholomew, playing Lisa, provides the perfect comedic foil for her hysterical husband. She is balanced between the roles of sympathetic wife and the frustrated woman who, having been through the trauma of childbirth herself, dismisses Ed’s deeply ironic claims that she has “no idea what he is going through.” The couple’s heated arguments are broken up by moments of tender love, sharing the fears and joys of welcoming their new baby girl into the world.
Much of the comedy of the play is derived from the couple’s interaction with the hospital staff responsible for Ed’s care. Joyce, the midwife, played by Tochi Ejimofo is continually on the fringes and re-appears constantly through the curtains, returning each time with her inappropriately chirpy and casual expression, “Hey, how’s it going?” Joyce brings great comedic effect to the scene; she maddeningly attempts to create a positive energy in the maternity ward while being utterly clueless as to the intricacies of male child birth and the availability of the obstetric doctors and operating theatres. The tension created as Ed seethes in pain, while Joyce flippantly undermines his struggles, is particularly amusing to watch. The obstetrician, Natasha, portrayed excellently by Hannah Wilkinson, adds another layer of comedic effect to the character relations. Her matter-of-fact and abrasive tone, as she breaks the news to Ed that the baby may have to be manually re-positioned through his anus, is hilarious, especially in contrast with Ed’s hysterical response. The staging and direction of this scene is crafted particularly well as Natasha lubes up her forearm while Ed writhes in increasing horror on the bed, generating a great deal of laughter in the audience.
While the play is undoubtedly comedic, it also offers an interesting perspective into the established martial dynamics of husband as ‘bread-winner’ and wife as the primary parental figure and housekeeper. Birthday reverses these gender roles to their extremity. Lisa has transitioned from the household sphere to the world of business and enjoys this new-found independence and intellectual stimulation, while Ed begins to discover the challenges of being a stay-at-home parent. Seeing the birthing process in these unnatural circumstances also highlights the extent of the trauma that a woman’s body goes through in bringing children into the world, making us keen to send our mum a thank you text at the end of the show!
Joe Penhall writes a number of more serious and emotive moments into the script that at times come across as being rather out of place and forced in this highly comedic piece, yet I felt that the cast deal well with these tonal shifts. Thus overall, this light-hearted and humorous play is a pleasure to watch and is guaranteed to make you chuckle. The cast and production team do a wonderful job of bringing this witty and unique story to life on the stage. I highly recommend making a trip to The Alma Theatre if you fancy a bit of comedy on your Valentine’s Day!
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