Ed and Lisa, pregnant with their second child, are in the hospital preparing for a caesarian section. However, Lisa won’t be the one giving birth, as Ed has been carrying the baby for the last nine months thanks to an artificial womb fitted by the NHS. Joe Penhall’s Birthday uses the idea of role reversal to create a piece that pokes fun at both women and men in modern society.
In Penhall’s Birthday it isn’t uncommon for men to be having children, even if it is still an odd sight to see. This idea of reversing such established gender stereotypes creates much of the comedy in the piece with Ed, played by Stephen Mangan, asking for copies of Closer magazine and raspberry leaf tea. Penhall’s script is strong, providing comedy and something with a bit more depth to it as well. Penhall’s ideas don’t just float on the surface but delve nicely into places that have both the men and women in the audience squirming at the idea of childbirth, or perhaps that could have been due to the many times that latex gloves were used with KY jelly. The comedy is tight and springy in this production and had the audience laughing throughout. I felt that some of the more dramatic points that Penhall had included in the script could have been accessed to a fuller degree. These always felt less electric and full of life, and seemed to lose the audience slightly.
Mangan’s simple delivery perfectly suits the comedy required for Ed. There was sincerity with the pregnancy throughout the piece that made his character so much more believable. I felt that Mangan dipped on the more dramatic moments of the piece as his sometimes monotone voice made it hard to see that he was being compassionate and created a barrier that seemed to lack some empathy. Lisa Dillon was well cast as businesswoman Lisa, taking a more typically masculine role in the relationship, and both Mangan and Dillon worked beautifully together to create a relationship that oozed comfort and understanding. I adored Llewella Gideon as African midwife Joyce. Gideon has crafted a character who is not only undeniably comic but also simple and bold. Joyce was a character who merely had to enter the stage and the audience would laugh uncontrollably. Penhall and Gideon were matched very well here.
Mark Thompson’s set made the stage circular for much of the piece and embodied the clinical, dated idea of an NHS hospital. Using a small revolve for scene changes and a lighted circular background that created the idea of hospital windows, Thompson created a space that felt very right for the world of the play.
Birthday has some excellent comedy, strong performances and a script that feels rounded and not bogged down in fluffy, simple comedy. This production is guaranteed to make you laugh; I dare you not to try.
Birthday is playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 4 August. For more information and tickets see the Royal Court Theatre website.