There comes a point in every person’s life when a quick glance at Facebook can feel like wandering into a photo shoot at a maternity ward. There you are, awkwardly scrolling through the pictorial evidence of your friend’s reproductive prowess, when you’re suddenly caught off guard by a news story featuring an unfolding calamity, or a post where an acquaintance vents hysterically about some topical injustice. This kind of uneasy juxtaposition is at the centre of Nina Segal’s raw and restless new play.
Part Mumsnet cry-for-help, part frontline dispatch, it sees two new parents kept up all night by their inconsolably crying newborn – here represented by a glowing doll with a car alarm in its head. Adelle Leonce and Alex Waldmann are suitably frazzled and teary as the nameless couple, but show off enough chemistry to make their character’s enduring, imperfect love believable. As the night wears on and their patience wears thin, their bedtime stories blur into bickering and exhaustion-induced hallucination. The optimistic bubble of their family unit is squeezed tightly by their utter powerlessness in the face of a universe where bad things happen.
Outside, the world might be ending – or it might just be a Saturday night. All kinds of hot topic horrors are hinted at. Crime, conflict, climate change and the refugee crisis all get namechecks, but there’s a conscious – and occasionally frustrating – refusal to confront anything directly. That in itself is a reasonable response to our contemporary experience, where an ever increasing global awareness is dragged down by a snowballing sense of helplessness. It’s a lot like a millennial version of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, with the visceral horror at human inhumanity replaced by outrage-fatigue and collapsing Ikea furniture.
The production achieves a real sense of gathering threat, helped along enormously by George Dennis’ sound design, which fuses sirens and lullabies, crackling news reports and earthquake-evoking rumbles to unsettling effect. As the narrative rolls on, various items – including the actors themselves – are unpacked from a cling-wrapped parcel. Their tiny apartment first gains the obligatory houseplant and string of fairy lights every new couple seems to acquire, then collapses into a glorious mess, strewn with baby toys and tiny jumpers. Ben Kidd’s direction finds them scrabbling through the junk for props to compliment whatever they happen to be saying at the time, but this is rarely as slick as it wants to be, fighting rather than complimenting the dreamlike flow of Segal’s writing.
The script contains moments of almost poetic clarity, with acutely accurate observations of life’s struggles, joys and disappointments dotted around like Lego bricks hidden in a thick carpet. These details – recognisable to anyone who has been young, drunk too much, and tended to get grumpy when overtired – sometimes jar with the vagueness of the play’s argument. Yes, life can be hard and scary. Yes, babies can be miracles of optimism.
Though it starts out at a cracking pace, the show begins to flag towards the end. Even at an hour, it feels stretched thin in places, flogging its theme well past the point when Child Protection should have become involved. However, while there may be some missed opportunities here, Segal is emerging as an exciting new voice, both incisive and unafraid to delve into some disquieting nocturnal places.