BWW Review: STORIES, National Theatre
Last year, Nina Raine had a National Theatre hit with Consent, which grilled deceit and empathy in both the legal system and relationships. Now, she turns her attention to a 39-year-old single woman desperately seeking a sperm donor - and once again, procedures are sharply juxtaposed with people.
However, Stories isn't quite as deft in its framing. The issues around sperm donation are confidently and pithily presented, from the debate over whether it's better for the child to know their father or not, through to the peculiarities of choosing a sperm donor online - a total stranger who will nonetheless be a biological part of your family.
But the woman at the centre, Anna, is something of a void. We're never entirely convinced of why she's so keen to have a child, nor do see much of her life outside of this overriding desire; though Raine has some winking fun with Anna being a playwright, it's mainly a source of one-liners. Her recent break-up is much discussed, but we don't get to see enough of the couple, or the aftermath, to feel its import.
Claudie Blakley is an incredibly warm presence, and fills in some of those gaps with sheer force of personality - particularly on the emotional side. Though Anna takes a wry attitude towards much of the process, Blakley finds real poignancy in the agonising moment where yet another possible route to motherhood is snuffed out.
Otherwise, the play is frequently witty, engaging and informative, but not as powerful as it might be given the subject matter. Raine also directs on this occasion, and it possibly needed another voice in the room to question the prevalence of gags versus more delicate human drama.
Or maybe the subject was actually too close: Raine has discussed her own path to motherhood via sperm donation from an old university friend, so Anna's journey is at least semi-autobiographical. Perhaps some of that motivation felt too obvious to her to spell out in the play, or it felt more comfortable to frame it in lighthearted terms?
Nevertheless, Sam Troughton is a hoot as a series of man-child potential donors, from the immature ex to the self-involved actor who thinks she's offering him a part, cringe-worthy DJ affecting "street" slang, gloriously pretentious director, and fanfic-writing gay man who enters into a panic spiral. It's a fantastic showcase for his versatility.
Stephen Boxer is also fun as Anna's irascible father, though the discussions her family has over donors strays into uncomfortable territory - such as crass comments about race that are played for laughs, and sniffy middle-class judgements that go unchallenged.
It's unclear whether or not Raine wants to satirise Anna's insular, cultured, middle-class milieu. There's a slight eye roll at some of their signifiers - ordering sperm online is inevitably compared to doing an Ocado shop - but it's not pushed far enough, and there are places where the casual privilege and nastier humour grate.
A more interesting idea is teased throughout, though not entirely developed. It relates to the title, asking how we shape our own life stories - whether we believe in "meant to be" or a higher power, or if it's a retroactive justification of our choices, a way of convincing ourselves that everything followed a grand plan we couldn't see at the time.
A child pops up regularly throughout - usually the offspring of one of Anna's friends, but a symbolic presence too - and one of her characters is keen on Choose Your Own Adventure books. Raine's non-linear piece has some of that looping feel, as Anna (herself an unplanned baby) keeps wondering whether the latest setback is just necessary for her to find the ultimate path to her future child, and how she'll explain that conception narrative.
There's good support from Brian Vernel as a traumatised young man whose birth resulted from sperm donation (even if the character feels like a case study); Margot Leicester as Anna's scatty mother and another significant figure; and Thusitha Jayasundera as two of Anna's friends: one horrified by a strange proposition, the other coolly candid about family life.
Jeremy Herbert's fluid set - furniture whisks onto the stage or pops out of the floor - suits Raine's slick, fast-paced production, though again this serves the comedy best. It's an enjoyable, thought-provoking evening, and we're always in safe hands with the astutely inquisitive Raine, but this particular story feels unfinished.
Photo credit: Sarah Lee