National Theatre Dorfman, 27th November 2018
Nina Raine has a knack for dramatising contemporary social issues from multiple perspectives and a gift for sharp comedy observation. At least based on her last work Consent as I have not seen her other acclaimed works Tribes and Rabbit. However here I wonder if her determination to cover the ground, and to entertain us in each of the many scenes, may have ended up stalling the momentum of the whole play. As well as serving up a few slightly jarring moments. And the decision to cast, and give free rein to, Sam Troughton in many of the male “candidate” roles, whilst he is very funny, did rather detract from the central dilemma.
Everywoman Anna (unassumingly played by the always accomplished Claudie Blakley) is 39, successful in her theatre career but wanting a baby, after partner, the conceited, and fraught, man-child/mummy’s boy Tom, (our first taste of Sam Troughton’s comic range), decides he wants to split. This despite the couple investing in a couple of years of IVF. Bourgeois Mum (Margot Leicester) and Dad (Stephen Boxer), both excellent, are supportive, if occasionally a little un-PC, as is gay young brother Joe (Brian Vernel). And so the search for the ideal sperm begins. She auditions a procession of possibles (and occasionally their partners), in person as well as mail-order, whose pros and cons are entertainingly dissected, with help from family and friends (most notably Thusitha Jayasundera’s forthright Beth. Tom, who is somewhat younger than Anna, even gets to make his case for a second chance.
The direction is sympathetic, unsurprising given Nina Raine herself takes on the task, Jeremy Herbert’s set of moving boxes is neat and unobtrusive, as is Bruno Poet’s lighting and Alex Baranowski’s music and sound. All the requisite bases are covered, including the grown-up searching for a birth parent, but the narrative lacks surprise and the whole ends up as less than the sum of its parts. In making her conundrum believable, and explaining why she might contemplate some of the prize c*cks on show here as potential donors/fathers, Anna comes over as a bit wet in her exasperated optimism if I am honest. Too many ideas, not always fully developed, with a bit of awkward shoe-horning in of situation, character (a wide-eyed child, a Russian octogenarian) and her research on occasion.
Having said that, given the quality of the lines that Nina Raine puts into the mouths of her characters to elucidate her wry observations, it is impossible to dislike the play even as the lack of a killer punch frustrates. Ms Raine is particularly good at nailing the excuses that the men offer for their hesitancies and the validations they demand for their, brief, potential participation. In fact maybe too good, as this squeezes out the space to understand what Anna is feeling. Or maybe that is precisely the point that Nina Raine was trying to make.