Think of all those women’s joke about man flu condensed into a 90-minute drama and you get close to Joe Penhall’s ‘man pain’ comedy. Birthday portrays a gender-reversed scenario in which a man (Ed, played by Green Wing’s Stephen Mangan) gives birth to a baby girl, while his wife (Lisa/Lisa Dillon) plays the supportive partner. Observational comedy characterises the play’s short scenes that follow Ed’s labour through to delivery. The comic distancing technique of the gender reversal makes visible women’s experience of birthing: the obsessive compulsive need to be tidy, clean and germ free (I was still cleaning and moving recalcitrant cupboards and wardrobes into place days before the birth of my second child); wanting, but failing, to stay in control of the delivery (fat chance); managing the pain (what a joke); or worrying about whether a flat stomach is possible post-pregnancy (assuming there was such a thing in the first place, so no worries in my pregnancies on that score). So yes, I did take some pleasure in this comic recognition, and for the first thirty minutes or so found myself laughing at Ed’s pain-ridden frustration because Lisa has forgotten to bring his raspberry leaf tea, his disgruntlement at looking like a Bernard Matthews turkey, or his struggle to relieve labour pains with a TENS machine (I remain convinced these never work – probably invented by a man).
But the problem is that the play turns into one long, extended joke on this same theme and consequently begins to wear very thin. There are some darker notes – fragments that detail the couple’s history of having a first child (by Lisa) and how traumatic, life threatening this was for mother and baby (hence the switch to Ed for the second child), but these feel disjointed or out of joint with the male-birthing-fantasy. Equally, Penhall hints at an understaffed NHS – a midwife (a delightfully funny Llewella Gideon) periodically checking in on Ed and subjecting him to various indignities, heralded by the routine appearance of latex gloves, KY jelly and surgical instruments, is otherwise absent because of dealing with busy wards. And in charge is Natasha (Louise Brealey), an overworked female registrar whose experience of NHS childbirth and the gender politics of gynaecology (‘it’s a man’s world’) has put her off having children for life. Yet this peppering of a social commentary lacks any real depth or moving insight. Limited too is the play’s interrogation of gender roles and parenting. Portraying Lisa in the ‘top girl’ role of the highly paid, working parent to Ed’s bovine ‘labour’ has a dated feel to it – much more eighties than twenty first century.
My interest waning while watching the performance, I found myself thinking about or being reminded of a 1970s article by Griselda Pollock, ‘What’s wrong with “Images” of Women”?’ I used this article a lot when first teaching feminism and theatre classes, drawn at the time to Pollock’s elaboration on the feminist tactic of constructing gender-reversed images in order to denaturalise the meanings attached to male and female bodies. It proved a stimulus for practical exercises in reversing genders, but the problem I often encountered in such exercises was that seeing men in women’s roles provoked laughter without this necessarily eliciting thought-provoking laughter. And that was my problem with Penhall’s play: the laughter was all too easy. So while I do have a pleasurable lasting image of Stephen Mangan’s pregnant (prosthetic) belly and a transitory delight in the fantasy of man-in-birthing pain, Birthday otherwise failed to make a lasting, thoughtful, gender-reversed impression.