Stephen Mangan has always been an enigma for me, at times sublime at times frustratingly inconsistent - in Birthday he is perfect. Joe Penhall’s tight script flips the roles of male and female as Ed (Mangan) is in labour with what will be his family’s second child. In a biological loop hole which is never really explained, neither is it ever important, men are able to have babies, and perhaps more incredibly – they can do it on the NHS.
At times this play can seem like a scathing indictment of the National Health Service, a kind of polariosed portrayal of Danny Boyle’s wonderland with needles. The blunt and brilliantly observed Joyce (Llewella Gideon) an African nurse with a barometer for bullshit and an inability to feel pressure is perhaps the best example of this - she is heartwarmingly familiar and yet frustratingly inept. However, you sympathise with her, she has a busy schedule and somehow things seem to work out with or without her help. In fact the hospital surprisingly comes out of it quite well, idiosycratic but ultimately quite efficient. Its childbirth itself which needs a new PR campaign.
With blazing hormones and familial bickering Lisa (Lisa Dillon) and Ed prove that though gender roles can be redefined, the life changing event that is chilbirth is a messy and mind altering affair. Dillon plays the powerful “man” of the house with a confidence that transcends her deminuitive frame. She captures that absence which strong business types so often possess, present but at the same time elsewhere. Very impressive.
The interplay between the couple is at times shockingly familiar. Cheap point scoring is followed by sincere moments of reflection only to be blown away again by a whirlwind of fury. It is an incredibly difficult job to write such a rich comedic script, but what is even harder is to interlace it with such beautiful moments of decision, silence and heartache. Stephen Mangan doesn’t just get the opportunity to display his masterful comic timing, which he does, often, but he also has moments of complete fury which dissapate into honest reflection and real sincerity.
Its just a really good play.
Birthday is at the Royal Court until the end of this week (apologies that this time we fall into the “Better Late Than Never” group.) For more information or to book ticket please click here