Bush Theatre, london – until 31 November
It is a brave theme that Chris Thompson – a former social worker – has chosen. It is also a darkly, and accidentally, topical one since a court case is still running in which the younger of two gay male partners is accused of violence towards their baby. Parenthood and its stresses are perennial themes, but as the idea of family changes, it is only fair to imagine and depict ways in which the new structures – so full of optimism and liberal approval – can implode. As easily as the old heterosexual model. Sometimes perhaps more so if – as transpires here – there are generational gulfs and unresolved resentments in an age of fast change.
We meet 46 year old solicitor Daniel (a saturnine, powerful James Lance) with his partner Ollie (Joshua Silver) who is fourteen years younger and a party-planner. They are having a larky baby-shower with Priya (Chetna Pandya) their heavily pregnant surrogate. They vogue their camp wedding dance, snog, giggle that “Daddy” has had a sexual overtone for them, nudge nudge, so they’d better stick to “Dad” for the baby. So far, so modern, so cosy. Priya has a 15 year old son who the boys see a lot and mentor, and once bore a surrogate baby for her sister. All is set fair.
But the second scene (after an elegantly staged suggestion of birth, director Robert Hastie keeps things neat and fast here) is a furious courtroom battle. Priya has reneged and kept the baby and Daniel in particular is eloquently distraught.
I notice that two (male) reviewers complain that we aren’t told what her motivation is to do this harsh thing: but hang on – speaking as a female, I have no such problem. Go back to that opening scene and the point when the consensual cosiness collapses. Daniel’s mother (“on a freedom pass from Woolwich”) arrives, not homophobic exactly but feeling they’ll need more help than they admit. Ollie resents here commonness, insults her repeatedly for everything including buying a Christmas turkey at Iceland, and blames her for every hangup that Daniel has, because she was in an abusive relationship and his father threw him out at fifteen. Daniel, defending her against this onslaught, becomes physically violent in no time, and the whole thing becomes so ugly, so revelatory, so testosterone-charged and immature and dangerous, that no sane woman would let the chaps mind a hamster. Let alone a newborn, however donor-egged. Pandya draws the pregnant Priya assuredly and vividly, both here and in the final scene. In court she says nothing, while Joanna Bacon changes role to be a rather man-hating barrister taunting Daniel to more outbreaks of rage and Donna Berlin as a dryly funny family court judge slaps them both down.
There are lots of arguments winding through the play: not least Daniel’s fury that any “Peggy sue from Woolwich” can get pregnant and have full rights over her baby, yet a man must be humiliatingly questioned just to get his son..”. And in the final at, after Daniel has rather chillingly furiously wrecked the planned nursery, we veer off into the problem between the men, which is about generational change, and Ollie being all “entitled” because he never went through the days of stigma and deprivation before gay marriage. His resentment at not having a beautiful “proposal story” from the tougher, older Daniel – who popped the question under duress, in Nandos – is both funny and telling.
The battle concludes, not entirely credibly. But what sticks in the mind is the abrupt, unrestrained tendency to male violence in Daniel. There’s a briefly sinister moment when Lance walks quietly into the immaculate nursery (we don’t know what happened in court, and who won) and plunges into the cot in rage, to hurl its contents around.
OK, there is no baby there. But if I was Priya, I’d have thought again.