Birthday, Sky Arts - TV review: Stephen Mangan is tremendous but it all feels a tiny bit flimsy

Frequently hilarious, but overall it's something of a one-trick pony

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The Independent Culture

You have to admire writer Joe Penhall’s chutzpah. ‘What if…’ he probably thought, ‘What if I take the plot of the underrated Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Junior – in which the Austrian protein supplement becomes pregnant – and present it like it was an episode of the BBC’s underrated NHS comedy Getting On?’ The result is an often hilarious hour of killer one liners, featuring tremendous performances (particularly from the knocked-up Stephen Mangan), that explores far more than the concept of male pregnancy. Sadly, overall it’s something of a one-trick pony. It’s a great trick, and a really nice pony, but still…

Birthday first premiered at The Royal Court Theatre in 2012 and now Penhall, director Roger Michell and almost all the original cast (Anna Maxwell Martin has replaced Lisa Dillon) have got the band back together for Sky Arts. It’s hard to take your eyes off Mangan – huge, rubbery, sweat-soaked – as he suffers the indignities associated with childbirth that women have endured ever since there have been women to endure them. Watching a man so brutally invaded and man-handled (no pun etc) is genuinely an eye-opener. I’ll not be pressing any scientists to make male pregnancy a possibility any time soon.

While Birthday lacks a bit of oomph (midway through a dose of Is-This-It-Then-itis sets in) it’s undeniably laugh out loud funny, with Mangan gifted a treasure trove of brilliant lines to spit out between the contractions (not that he had any, of course). Indignant at the treatment he is receiving he complains that he has been ‘fingered more times than an unripe avocado’ and recalling the birth of his first child (which he didn’t gestate) he asks his wife ‘why did they invite me to watch? They kept showing me your vagina like it was a holy relic’. What brought the house down in Sloane Square still works on the small screen.

The excellent supporting cast all have their moments too, with Maxwell Martin’s Lisa giving as good as she gets as her hormonal, suffering husband bandies abuse and accusations her way. Their sex life, relationship and, indeed the concept of having children at all are given a jolly good kicking as the couples’ nerves are stretched to breaking point. Not helping them out much is midwife Joyce (Llewella Gideon) whose bluff, no nonsense countenance rubs up against the expecting parents’ anxiety, and Natasha (Louise Brealey), a registrar with the bedside manner of Data from Star Trek.

No doubt Birthday will have the sort of parents who watch Sky Arts in fits of laughter and floods of tears as they relive their own experiences. However, once the novelty of ‘hah, he’s saying things a woman usually says, and hoho she’s saying traditional man things’ wears off Birthday feels just a tiny bit flimsy. Brilliantly witty, with a top drawer cast delivering big performances, Birthday is a bonny babe. It just won’t be your favourite child.

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