at the Royal Court, Saturday 21st July 2012
There is a tendency among us leftists to shout down anyone who dares criticise the NHS and defend the institution no matter what. To do so, however, is to ignore its many pitfalls and problems and is counterproductive to the cause for improved social conditions. Rather than provide a case for private healthcare, as some have reported, Joe Penhall in Birthday demonstrates the need for an improved national health service with more funds and better staffing.
The comedy in the piece derives from the central conceit; in this reality, men have been given the opportunity to give birth due to the implementation of artificial wombs. The issues which pregnant women have to face when at the mercy of hospitals are exacerbated and the lack of care in the NHS as it stands is highlighted. The arguments about who in the relationship does the most work are subverted and traits which are generally considered to be ‘male’ and ‘female’ are demonstrated to be little more than products of circumstance. It goes without saying that watching a man worrying about his birth plans is hilarious, and Penhall plays this dynamic between Ed and Lisa wonderfully.
On a bigger scale, however, Penhall shows a health service stretched to breaking point and doing all it can to reduce waiting times whilst staff levels are cut. It is no wonder, he seems to say, that people go private with these conditions. But were the service ran with less bureaucracy and more money was given to it, there would be no need to swap providers.
Birthday satirizes this by using the whole men-giving-birth idea as a metaphor for yet another NHS initiative designed to make life easier when in fact its worse for everyone. Within every system there are those who care (Natasha, played with geeky tenderness by Louise Brearly) and those who would rather be anywhere else (the brash and sarcastic Llewella Gideon), but less talk about ‘protocol’ and ‘reports’ and more focus on saving lives would serve to improve things immeasurably. With a small pot if funds, however, all that can be done is ensure “everyone gets enough, just enough, to keep them alive”.
But though Stephen Mangan and Lisa Dillon give strong performances as Ed and Lisa and smartly switch from ‘masculine’ to ‘feminine’ personas without us noticing, the rest of Roger Michell’s production feels a little flat. Mark Thompson’s set manages to convey the clinical institutionalism of hospitals but the back wall is rather dated and the revolve feels utterly unnecessary. John Leonard’s sound is equally confused, and rather than enhancing the play’s hinted surrealism the production on the whole us somewhat lifeless, which doesn’t help the fact the second half of the play doesn’t sustain the initial original idea.
The premise of Birthday is a hilarious one which manages to challenge common beliefs about the role of men and women and the decline of the NHS, but due to a lacklustre production and a somewhat thin text, these ideas are difficult to find underneath the comedy. The four strong cast give some life (especially Mangan in his final act of fury) but ultimately it’s difficult not to think that Birthday could go further.