In today’s society we don’t need to have children. Back in the days when we used to hit each other on the head with a stick, breeding was humanity’s way of survival. It is a universal fact that if a species stopped breeding it would succumb to extinction. We don’t need to worry about that anymore – we have drugs for everything and the world is so over-populated that you can’t even get onto the tube in rush hour. Children today is a choice, and a choice we can decline. So what makes us choose to have them? And what would we do if we knew we couldn’t have them?
Ben Ockrent scratches at the surface of these issues in his new play Breeders at St James Theatre. When a friend asked him if he’d consider donating his sperm for her and her girlfriend to conceive a child with, the idea for Breeders and its questioning of what makes a family in the twenty-first century started to emerge.
Andrea (Tamzin Outhwaite) and Caroline (Angela Griffin) wish to start a family, but as a lesbian couple the matter of shared DNA becomes a frustrating obstacle – as we know from biology, same-sex relationships are not exactly reproductive, but having a child with your own DNA, shared genetics, seems like the perfect love declaration and the couple is determined to have the same opportunities as heterosexual parents. The choice falls on Jimmy (Nicholas Burns), Andrea’s immature brother who suffers from commitment issues and seems to be going nowhere in his life. With their mother sick in hospital Andrea convinces him that donating his sperm would secure the family bond, and despite objections from his slightly ditsy girlfriend Sharon (Jemima Rooper), he agrees to help them start a family. It’s the perfect recipe for disaster.
Ockrent’s writing is side-achingly funny, and charmingly directed by Tamara Harvey. Breeders raises many important questions about issues not normally spoken aloud – and even rarer with a sense of humour. Angela Griffin and Tamzin Outhwaite are brilliantly dry-humoured and create a strong unity, a powerhouse couple played with sincerity and comedic precision. Outhwaite’s performance especially leaves a mark on you as she desperately and almost subconsciously suffers from a stubborn need to prove herself to the world and her family. Nicholas Burns is hilariously weedy in a cast of powerful women, and it’s impossible not to have a girl-crush on Jemima Rooper and her confused but passionate Sharon. She raises the question of the necessity of children today and whether it’s responsible to bring them into a world as chaotic and disruptive as ours. It’s not a play about being lesbian as one might assume; it touches a far broader issue in today’s society and asks why we do decide on breeding when our world seems to be over-flowing with seemingly apathetic and broken adults traumatised by a bad upbringing. It’s a play about the importance of family and the bond between human beings and what defines this vital bond in the unconventional forms of modern society.
James Perkins’ design is an interesting creation of yellow scaffolding and IKEA items clearly symbolising the disharmony in Andrea and Caroline’s lives, gradually transforming itself into a home as they fight for the right to have a family of their own and grow closer to each other as the weeks of sperm-producing and ovulation-testing nightmare unfold. Joshua Carr’s lighting design is exciting as the backdrop changes colour and the incredibly cheesy and hilarious Swedish versions of famous oldies cry out from the speakers. As a form the play has a great concept and very exciting material. It is incredibly funny but seems more like a sitcom at times as the performers aim for laughs and sometimes divert themselves from the truth of the situation. It turns a bit slapstick – not that there’s anything wrong in that – but as a result we lose a little of the heart-ache behind the funny mask. The Swedish cover songs are fabulous, but perhaps a bit out of context and serve more like a comical icing on an already very sweet cake. The ending has a bit too much Hollywood cheese, but that said it is very uplifting to just sit back and have a booming laugh (and there are many of those). Angela Griffin dressed as a Christmas biscuit, or Jemima Rooper in full-on snowball costume is a sight to stimulate your laughing muscles.
Breeders ask a lot of important questions and is a very warm and interesting play, lovely in its comedic form, but perhaps surviving on laughs a bit too much. If you want to train those chuckle-muscles though and have food for thought at the same time, it’s a night well spent.
Breeders is playing at the St James Theatre until 4 October. For more information and tickets, see the St James Theatre website.