Review: Birthday

Sophie Williams 27 November 2013

7pm, Tue 26 to Sat 30 Nov 2013, Corpus Playroom

Birthday is, put simply, a rather good script. I had thought before going in that it would not only be very difficult for director Jessica Poon to mess it up, but a little bit heartbreaking for me if she did: I saw the play when it premiered at the Royal Court in London last year starring Stephen Mangan and absolutely loved it. Luckily, I really enjoyed last night’s Corpus Playroom version and came away feeling that the script had been done justice.

The playwright Joe Penhall’s talents have been well-showcased by Cambridge recently, with four of his plays (including this week’s Birthday) having been put on by us in the last year or so, a highlight being last Easter’s Blue/Orange, a play about the failure of British mental health services. In many ways, Birthday – written over ten years after the former play – is a somewhat lesser continuation of the theme, showing how the already-failing NHS would probably be a bit rubbish if men were ever able to get pregnant.

But it is much more than a rant about the state of the NHS; it is a (generally) tender, funny show that reassures you that everything will most likely be OK. It is not so much a ‘Battle of the Sexes’ play but a ‘Look at the sexes working together!’ play. Although pregnant man Ed’s speeches can sometimes feel a bit ‘Fathers For Justice’ or ‘Men’s Rights Activist’ (like when he bemoans the fact that he can never see his wife’s vagina in the same way again after seeing her give birth, and is now traumatised). I’m never sure quite how we’re meant to feel about that (especially as a woman) but it’s probably a common enough sentiment. Bothersome, but common.

While the script wasn’t quite played for laughs in the way I had anticipated, but what I found instead was new kind-heartedness. The lead actors of the play, Gabriel Cagan and Lili Thomas, starring as pregnant couple Ed and Lisa, both gave excellent performances, though I have to give the former the special commendation. Cagan was superb, believable even in a situation as unusual as being a cisgendered man who is pregnant. Sometimes Thomas’ performance felt a bit too stagey but this is not a huge issue, for together with Cagan the actors comprised an impressive unit that you can’t help but warm to.

The play is not quite a two-hander but it feels like it a lot of the time, and the actors successfully carried a script that can flag occasionally despite it only being an hour and a half long. Nisha Emich as registrar Natasha, introduced nearer the end of the play, brought a refreshing charm to the proceedings by acting as a lovely counterpoint to Chloe France’s initially quite horrible nurse Joyce. But France found in the character a sympathetic side I had not seen before, making her more than just a one-dimensional awful nurse. Basically, everyone was great. The Corpus Playroom set was disappointingly bare and uncreatively dressed, however, and the audience frustratingly small, but hopefully the latter will improve.