The result is a play that is anything but slow and laboured as writer Joe Penhall has not only kept it short but has turned the tables and made this about a male pregnancy and labour. Ed (Stephen Mangan) has chosen to have a child after giving birth to their first child left his wife Lisa (Lisa Dillon) physically and psychologically damaged.
Penhall's play is both nicely observed and nicely imagined.
Yes Ed, inevitably, is given to 'suffering worse' pain because he is a man but in reversing the roles the tone and subtext of the conversation subtly shifts and as a result perceptions and prejudices are challenged. Well mine were.
When Ed is rolling around the bed moaning in the agony of labour I couldn't help thinking he was making a big fuss. If it had been an Edwina on the bed I'm sure I would have felt far more sympathetic.
And it goes deeper than mere labour pains but also challenges sex role stereotypes, stereotypes I was sure I had avoided being conditioned into.
But this is all subtext to what is a witty and funny play as the pain riddled, poked and prodded father to be clashes with hard-pressed, no-nonsense medical staff and his wife who's 'been through it all before'.
Stephen Mangan* is naturally superb in such a role and Llewella Gideon makes an welcome appearance as Joyce the grumpy, non-nonsense midwife (if you are an Ab Fab fan she played the 'bitch nurse'/beauty therapist and pretty much channels that performance).
Also lovely to see Louise Brearley as Natasha the registrar. I'm referring to her from now on as Sherlock's saviour as I'm sure she'll have played a part in the detective's dramatic escape from death in the last episode of the BBC TV Series. But I digress.
*plot spoiler alert* The only slightly unsatisfying thing about Birthday is that after all the huffing and puffing, moaning and groaning and drama we don't get to see a little bundle of joy - doll, blanket wrapped pillow or otherwise. For me it would have just cemented the worthwhile feeling that descends upon the parents during the closing lines.
Birthday is great fun but also had me thinking and for that I'm going to give it four and a half stars. It runs at the Royal Court downstairs until August 4. I've put the slightly odd trailer at the bottom of the post and you can listen to Joe Penhall talking about the play on Radio 4's Front Row tomorrow evening (27 June), available as a podcast shortly after broadcast.
And @polyg has written a far more eloquent review on her blog. Having read it, I feel like I've given too much away but you do find out he's pregnant very quickly.
* thanks to friend of the stars, @_faeriequeen, Stephen Mangan came over to chat in the bar afterwards and said that everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, monitors beeping when they shouldn't have and lines getting mixed up. I, for one, certainly didn't notice anything going awry which is testament to their professionalism.
Well the lovely Louise Brearley, as already mentioned, is in Sherlock which also stars Andrew Scott who appeared at the Royal Court in Cock with Mr W.