Sleepless Theatre Company’s Baby Box takes a long, searching look at female pain, strength and survival through the lens of sisters, Jamie and Chloe. A trajectory is drawn directly from first periods to first sex to hospital visits in order to show the full extent of what women will put up with, and the pressures on a relationship between sisters. Directed by Helena Jackson as part of the King’s Head Theatre’s ‘Who Runs the World?’ season, showcasing female playwrights in response to certain claims that the work simply isn’t there to feature in programmes, the writer Laura McGrady and Sarah Cullum play women fumbling to figure themselves, their desires, “overreactions” and bodies out once and for all.
It’s not a smooth journey to get to that point, for the characters or by theatrical standards. Chloe (Cullum) experiences terrible pain when she’s menstruating, worse when she’s having sex; Jamie (McGrady) tries to understand, but later has her own problems with her sexuality to figure out. Long scene breaks while the performers change costumes before us or offstage, though overlaid with some pleasingly nostalgic hits, accumulate to make for a show that feels longer than its 80 minutes. A bloodstained bed and a message which comes to be displayed in sanitary pads acts as set, leaving the two with more space than ever needed. The focus is on Chloe, Jamie, and what they have to say to each other.
This is where we run into further problems, as Cullum and McGrady share a strange quality of delivery which lets down their examination of growing up and all things womb: often rushing their lines, especially in conversation with each other, gives everything a rehearsed sound. As a result several jokes barely register, and some of the monologues have this identical rhythm to them, feeling almost automatic. This exaggerates some very affected exchanges and the predictable beats of this relationship. Baby Box should hopefully inform audiences, but it won’t surprise them.
It’s important that, as transgender people gain attention and (hopefully, gradually) respect, we continue to bring up reproductive issues, about the stigma still surrounding frank discussion of “female” anatomy, and about womanhood. Baby Box largely does this well, going beyond the simplest ways of summarising gender, with only one line near the end equating being a woman with having a vagina, no room for discussion. Repeatedly in the play we’re assured that having this vagina does not define someone, and it’s strictly true – it defines us in the same way that everything else does. Which is to say, hugely. Baby Box’s might be by-the-numbers, but the numbers are sincerely and fervently chosen.
Baby Box played at King’s Head Theatre until 6 May
Photo: Sleepless Theatre