You know how theatre’s meant to make you think and feel, and that’s supposed to be a good thing? What about when you leave feeling insulted, and then spend ages thinking about how annoyed you are about it – is that still good?
Nina Raine’s latest for the NT follows her much-lauded Consent, which put sexual consent under the microscope. Stories tries to do the same for female fertility. Our heroine, a 39-year-old presumably solvent theatre professional Anna (Claudie Blakley) wants a baby, but her young, mummy’s boy partner has left her in the lurch after two years of IVF. She’s toyed with using a sperm donor but is worried by internet accounts of donor-conceived children hating their mothers for their existence. She wants a baby daddy to go with her baby – but not a relationship. So she undertakes a romp around all her awful old flames, all played by a multi-tasking Sam Troughton, to ask if she can use their sperm.
The somewhat predictable responses elicited from a pompous celebrity actor, a self-consciously cool urban music producer and her camp, emotionally volatile gay male friends et al are good for a laugh – if you don’t mind giggling at stereotypes. Anna’s quest reveals or explores little except the fact she has terrible taste in infantile, commitment-phobic men.
Raine specialises in poking around in the lives and opinions of the kind of self-involved, self-appointed intellectual elites who littered Consent, and Stories treads the same territory (almost literally – the stripped-back traverse staging looks similar). But Anna’s trouble is that she isn’t nearly self-involved enough. Asked why she wants a baby, her answer is little more than a shrug and an “I just do.” The option to go down the pub and pull is (let’s not pretend women haven’t been getting themselves babies without men’s explicit consent for all eternity) dismissed without reason. Her rejection of sperm donation goes unchallenged by herself or anyone else and, mixed with some casual racism, makes the play’s stance feel dangerously judgmental.
Stories is presented on the assumption that we will identify and empathise with her plight of longing for a child – but nothing in the play gives us any reason to feel for her. Anna is undoubtedly “tragic” but not, as the play posits, because she’s left it a bit late to start a family. Instead it’s because she is a blank canvas, uninterested, immune or unwilling to articulate or acknowledge the hyper-awareness inflicted on pretty much all other women about their bodies, fertility and identity from the moment become aware they have them. She’s a woman permanently buffeted by others’ actions. Maybe the character has her reasons, but the absence of backstory leaves us with no option but to assume she’s just endlessly self-defeating.
Perhaps Stories wants to investigate how today’s women are under pressure to achieve on all fronts – in the workplace and in the home – in our rapidly changing world. But what it does is rely on contrived scenarios, created by a woman’s unfathomable decisions, to elicit laughs. And, then, the action is resolved when a “good” man intervenes and offers his consent – allowing her to fulfil her biological destiny and transform herself from a desperate tragedy to maternity.
Tacked on is some cradle-to-the-grave narrative framing featuring a childless Holocaust survivor dying painfully alone, and the relationship between Anna and a young girl, which seems to want to be about something but ends up reaffirming the idea that a childless woman’s life is pain and waste. Think Bridget Jones, with references to Lacanian psychoanalysis and theatrey in-jokes, and you’re there. And that’s not a good thing.
‘Stories’ is on at National Theatre until 28th November. More info and tickets here.