Ed (Stephen Mangan) and Lisa (Lisa Dillon) are in the labor ward; things are tense, and Lisa wants Ed to calm down. “I’m trying to,” he says. “Breathe,” replies Lisa. Typical behavior when awaiting a birth … except that it’s the father who’s having the baby. “Birthday” is set in a not-so-distant future where men can have artificial wombs allowing them to give birth, and Roger Michell’s scalpel-sharp production wonderfully displays the double standards exposed by Joe Penhall’s play. But ultimately, this jet-black, caustically funny conceit doesn’t quite, ahem, deliver.
Gender reversal is hardly new in comedy, but this sci-fi-esque situation and the precision of its expression most certainly are. And it’s to to the credit of both the writing and the production that within minutes, you cease questioning the likelihood of the concept and fall beneath the initial spell of the central performance.
It’s amusingly ironic that as the labor drags on (to the parents’ chagrin) with little movement from the baby, the proceedings become all the funnier. That’s in part because of the comic exasperation of the utterly plausible Stephen Mangan, whose conviction is so complete that he makes you believe not just in the final stages of labor witnessed here, but in his entire pregnancy. “My entire family thinks it’s daft and self-indulgent,” he says. “You didn’t see the way they looked at me when I started showing.”
Watching an uncomfortable, fractious man (with very convincing prosthetics) loudly complaining of the multiple horrors of labor turns out to be very funny, though less so to his wife. Having been through a pregnancy herself, Lisa takes an understandably dim view of his constant moaning about how much harder it is for men.
With everything played out on Mark Thompson’s minimal, shrewdly dressed turntable set, Penhall is particularly good at the multiple indignities and inequities of pregnancy as viewed by men and women. He also takes aim at a healthcare system that infantilizes parents. A wonderfully droll Llewella Gideon has effortlessly high status as a midwife who talks but rarely listens, and as the situation darkens (the cord is wrapped around the child’s neck), Louise Brearly is strikingly persuasive as a doctor whose youthful appearance belies her seniority.
Yet it becomes increasingly clear that Penhall has actually written a sharp, one-episode sitcom, and as the play proceeds through the travails of the birth and its aftermath, the situation itself loses its tang. There is increasing pain, but the specifics of the gender-switch idea are eroded and the writing declines through repetition into generic scenes of worried, mood-swinging, sleep-deprived parents. Despite Mangan’s star turn, the result is a play with has a knockout beginning, a well-intended ending and not enough middle.