Bristol Dramsocs Birthday: Review

The first thing I have to say about this production of Joe Penhall’s Birthday is that it was hilarious. From the moment you enter the theatre you know you are in for a treat: from being handed a birthday card as the program to a selection of Happy Birthday themed popular songs from across the years blaring through the speakers to the room decorated with birthday banners and balloons. It would be difficult for the play not to be funny as it concerns a man called Ed’s pregnancy and experience of labour after his wife, Lisa, had trouble and multitudes of difficulties when giving birth to their first child. 

The star of the show and the maternity ward has to be Ed, played by Andy Simpson, whose comedic timing was perfect and feigned horror at anything anus related brought the audience to fits of laughter. There are in fact many anus related incidents in the play (how else do you think they can get to the baby) offering up a multitude of jokes such as his water being artificially broken by the nurse with a huge metal rod, a catheter is inserted offering (slightly sexualised) relief of Ed’s bladder, or the doctor potentially having to shove her whole fist up there in order to remove the chord from around the baby’s neck. Each of these scenes is timed perfectly with the light going out before the metal rod insertion and when the light comes back on Ed’s face is a picture of horror as he gazes into the distance for many minutes with the audience unable to contain their laughter or just before the doctor inserts the hand the nurse interrupts announcing that an operating theatre has become available. While these moments are comedic they do remind the audience that this happens to a woman every time she gives birth, except it’s not the anus that’s violated but the vagina – and for the woman it’s treated as “normal”. 

What Andy Simpson does as Ed, as well as the cast and play as a whole, is offer commentary on wider issues of relations between men and women, stereotyping of the sexes and the underfunded and thus inefficient NHS through the laughter and joking. Ed’s wife, Lisa, played by Charlotte Bartholomew, because of his pregnancy has taken on the role of breadwinner and reveals the fact that it’s far easier going to work in a swanky office with coffee and independence rather than the more “female” and maternal role of raising children – something not readily revealed by men in the same position. 

The relationship and dynamic between both Andy and Charlotte in the production captures brilliantly the altered dynamics of Ed and Lisa’s marriage as Lisa is now the one with the power to make decisions and act rationally whereas Ed is the “hysterical” and “neurotic” one – this coming down to the issue of hormones of course! One of my favourite scenes commenting on the dynamics of male and female relations is Ed’s comment that men evolved to be (excuse the language) pricks whereas women evolved to tolerate. 

A really great comedic and silly foil for these more high-tension moments between Ed and Lisa is the nurse Joyce, played by Tochi Ejimofo, whose repetition of her opening line “Have you been induced?” delivered with a cheesy grin each time, spoken whenever she enters a scene, built in comedic value the more the play progressed (and as a result its seriousness). Issues of race were highlighted in Joyce’s comments that no one ever wants the African nurse but seemed to be slightly skimmed over, the issues of the NHS and gender roles emphasized more.

Hannah Wilkinson, gives a great performance as the doctor really bringing home Penhall’s commentary on the NHS and its underfunded state morosely relating to Lisa that the NHS will give patients “just enough, just enough to keep you alive”. But she does help Ed and Lisa’s baby showing compassion and care, before adding they caught her just before she was going home...

While there were some prop fumbles, forgotten lines and miscommunicated timings with lines and actions this definitely didn’t impinge on the audience’s experience of the play and the laughter emitting from every funny-bone satisfied customer.