Jack Studio Theatre, London – until 30 November 2019
Guest reviewer: Claire Roderick
With a successful international career and a seemingly happy marriage, Catherine’s need to be a mother is overwhelming. After 18 rounds of IVF over 11 years, she is exhausted and decides to attempt surrogacy. Jane Cafarella’s award-winning play follows Catherine and her American surrogate Nellie’s experiences with wit, warmth and compassion.
The technicalities and legal labyrinth of surrogacy agreements are a mountain to climb before the emotionally and physically draining medical procedures themselves, and Cafarella hasn’t held back in presenting the harsh realities of surrogacy. Creating two characters who would never enter each other’s worlds is a masterstroke, with Nellie’s goofy and naive excitement contrasting brilliantly with Catherine’s business-like, detail-oriented mindset immediately as Nellie completes Catherine’s questionnaire to find suitable candidates.
Of course, things don’t run smoothly, when three embryos are successfully implanted, the fate of one is shown in devastating style as Catherine arranges three sets of baby clothes in front of a screen tracking three heartbeats. It is in scenes like this that Kat-Anne Rogers excels as Catherine – hard-nosed and unsympathetic in her drive for motherhood but showing the chinks in the armour she has had to build for herself over the years to keep going. The sense of loss and devastation conveyed is palpable. Her matter-of-fact declaration that she’s NOT going to stop working when the baby arrives – much to Nellie’s horror – is completely understandable and healthy for her and the child, as is her classifying Nellie alongside the baby’s future nannies, although she will have been a special type of nanny.
Rachel Bellis as Nellie is larger than life and watching her transform from excited and evangelical about surrogacy at the beginning of her “journey” to frustrated and angry as Catherine’s stipulations overwhelm her is a joy. Nellie’s religious beliefs throw obstacles in the way when aborting one baby to save the other (she’s named them Brad and Angelina, while Catherine calls them A and B), but her need to do something worthwhile for others that can also give her a sense of purpose and worth is never lost, even when she is ranting in her vlogs about choosing gays as intended parents next time.
Under Pamela Schermann’s direction, the story unfolds in short scenes, with the women communicating via Skype, or through awkward meetings in New York, punctuated by Nellie’s vlog, which demonstrate the exhaustion motherhood can bring as her children torment each other off-screen. The ending is bittersweet but serves to show the disparate expectations of their relationship the two very different women hold. Heart-breaking, joyous and painfully honest, e-baby is a play you won’t want to miss.
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