Birthday, Royal Court Upstairs, London Crow, Borough Hall, London Utopia, Soho Theatre, Time

Roles are reversed in Joe Penhall's latest play, but the result is more amusing than illuminating

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Lisa and Ed are expecting their second child. Actually, Ed is the expectant one: in Joe Penhall's taut new comedy, career-minded mums may keep their jobs while willing fathers carry the baby and book a C-section. Birthday takes place in a hospital room, as Ed (Stephen Mangan) endures a lengthy labour. Mangan plays to TV type, going from toothily grinning, garrulous father-to-be to sardonic, sweary, desperate dad.

The chief gag is the role reversal, which starts with Ed moaning that Lisa (Lisa Dillon) has forgotten the raspberry tea and can't stop thinking about sex, but things soon get more fraught. The couple bicker competitively over hot topics of modern parenting: the pressure of being bread winner versus the importance of child-rearing, the horror of watching your spouse nearly die in labour versus the horror of going through it yourself. "I worked my tits off so you could take maternity leave," she shouts. "I feel like I'm doing all the work here," he groans later. But the sting is taken out of these arguments, which instead of sounding like bitter soundbites are laced with humour, thanks to the biological switch.

Ed's early assertion that "men can take the pain" soon gives way to traditional demands for drugs, and there are easy laughs at blokes' wimpiness. Every orifice has something thrust up it, and the comedy is surely played more gross-out than if the patient were a woman.

Penhall mocks his own sex knowingly, however, and a passage where Ed recalls watching his wife being "mutilated" during labour feels close to the bone. A dim view of the NHS, where "a football team of nurses" can't even unfold the operating table , also sounds carved from experience. The lethargic, unpopular, unbiddable midwife, Joyce, is brilliantly drawn, Llewella Gideon giving a wincingly recognisable performance.

Penhall's script could be played more nastily; Mangan's pain never seems that bad, and the squabbles are due to exhaustion and hormones rather than deep-seated psychological problems. At one crunchy moment it's suggested that maybe children are not really, well, worth it ... but there are moments of giddy optimism too. Either way, a rough night in the operating theatre makes for an entertaining one in the stalls.

Crow is an adaptation of Ted Hughes's collection by the UK arm of Handspring ( War Horse) Puppet Company, with choreography by Ben Duke of Lost Dog. Rich in potential, the show feels flappy and indulgent – perhaps there was too much reverence, so that neither puppets nor dance, drama nor poetry really take flight.

Crow's opening poem, "Two Legends", begins: "Black was the without eye / Black the within tongue / Black was the heart ..." I'm afraid to say, my heart sank into a similar despondency – for this is very much "actors doing poetry". Overly articulated, overly romantic, oh-so deeply felt, these visceral but vibrant poems are smothered in well-rounded pronunciation at the expense of Hughes's bite, and – even more crucially – his wit. What does come across is the folkloric, repetitive structure, which should work with a dance piece. But sadly the actors just gulp and grasp to vague, electronic sounds.

Some images are arresting, such as the horribly fleshy projections on a stretched hide, and the set is primordially grim. The dismemberment of a puppet bird is genuinely unsettling, while a crow created by four actors holding enormous wings and a beak lets the audience's imagination in. Elsewhere, however, the magical leap of faith that Handspring nailed in War Horse is denied for dull, technical reasons. It's hard to make out the puppets' movements against a set painted the same oily black; the actors' pale arms however, are clear, unlike most things in this ambitious, but unfocused, production.

Utopia is also overstuffed, with short works by eight writers. Six "wise fools" search for blueprints for the future, enacted through comic skits, playlets, speeches and songs. It features theatre writing debuts of the comic Dylan Moran (a well-observed piece on the easy target of dinner parties) and Labour MP Chi Onwurrah (a heavy-handed but entertaining envisioning of an extra-terrestrial Big Brother-style gameshow), while the cast includes comedian Rufus Hound (excellent). I'd say the future looks brightest for Zoe Cooper, whose monologue about a zumba class was funny, sensitive, and elegantly turned.

The first half, after a cringeworthy opening song, just about trots along, even if it annoyingly keeps cutting between texts. Presumably this is to make it more like a sketch show, with director Steve Marmion hoping to attract a new audience – laudable aim, not convinced this is the way. But Utopia is far too long to sustain this bite-size format, ending up neither a meaty exploration of a big subject, nor multi-faceted comic riff on it.

'Birthday' to 4 Aug (020-7565 5000); 'Crow' to 7 Jul (020-8858 7755); 'Utopia' to 14 Jul (020-7478 0100)

Critic's Choice

Last chance to catch Iain Glen on top form, taking the title role in Chekhov's Modern British Art Uncle Vanya in Lucy Bailey's close-up, autumnal production in The Printroom, west London (to 7 Jul). Filter's experimental Midsummer Night's Dream , with rock band, is a delightfully silly, insightful and sexy take on Shakespeare's comedy, now transferred to Manchester's Royal Exchange (to 3 Aug).

Comments