Hampstead Theatre, London – until 28 July 2018
Forty years ago as a Today reporter I helped cover the first IVF baby, Louise Brown. A Scottish cardinal told me that it was sinful: not because of interfering with nature but because of “the means the sperm was gathered” – masturbation. The sin of Onan. The editor wouldn’t play the tape because we couldn’t, on the BBC, mention seminal fluid. Another row followed over whether the words “fallopian tubes” were suitable for early morning.
Well, as Jemma Kennedy’s lively play marks the anniversary, Britain and its notions of taste have changed. And, like most others, I know half a dozen happy young twentysomethings conceived that way. And, on the downside, several women whose lives and marriages were capsized by the strenuous, disruptive and expensive processes of repeated failed in vitro attempts.
The social, political and attitudinal changes IVF brought need facing, and the virtually unregulated private-clinic industry challenging. So, good for Kennedy and Hampstead. And one of the stimulating things about the play is that as well as painfully expressing female need and the awful self-doubt – for some – of infertility, it considers the fallout on men too.
Women, of course, have the sharp end: who wants a talking womb voiced by Jenni Murray, interrupted by two querulous ovaries and a judgmental mother vagina, all bickering over her while she eats disgusting fertility recipes and surfs an AIBU-laden fertility forum? Especially if Karl Marx appears at her bedside too, pointing out that for all the (rather ironic) victories of feminism over contraception and abortion, our innards are now a patsy of profiteering capitalism.
This argument rages, in one of the few surreal scenes, over Serena (Ritu Arya in a bravely heartfelt performance). She is the most pained of the clients, or victims, of the Genesis clinic run by a beautifully oleaginous Harry Enfield (love those faux posh consultant vowels – “wimmin bettling infertility”). She has borrowed, spent, hoped, abstained and tried her man’s patience (Oliver Alvin-Wilson is tremendous) having multiple cycles of a process where only 30% ever succeed. As another richer client, Bridget the investing financier with frozen eggs, exultantly puts it profiting from 70% failure is a unique situation in business. Laura Howard, by the way, absolutely nails the manner, aggression and vulnerability of the affluent corporate queen. Sure I’ve met her.
But men suffer too. From disappointment, from being regarded as sperm banks, from the distortions of love and longing, Geoff, husband of the desperate Serena, already has a child , foisted in him by an ex but loved. . Miles (Arthur Darvill) is gay, conflicted, and unwilling to be Bridget’s donor despite a close friendship. Which had, we learn with even more irony, once went further.
At times I felt that in its 2 hr 30 there was one subplot too many – social worker Geoff’s struggle with his own adoption and with his rough-edged client Sharon. The disco fantasy clinic scene was annoyingly self consciously theatrical. But this is cavilling. Overall the play is fresh and funny, (Laurie Sansom directs , and knows just how to orchestrate a row in an A and E department with an eagerly caring security man). If it is a bit more ambitious than is prudent, who needs prudence? The ghastly doctor’s view that “love is unnecessary now we have deregulated the conception market” is kicked aside by a final, beautifully sentimental hymn to all kinds of messy, awkward unsymmetrical human affection. Worth catching, one more week to run.