Baby is an admirably complex debut from writer Effie Samara, exploring a woman’s right to use her body how she wants. Can a woman decide not to be resuscitated, and have the faith that doctors will adhere to her wishes? Can a woman be ‘one of the most gifted surgeons of her generation’ AND a mother? Can a woman artificially inseminate herself without her husband’s permission? Baby tackles all these issues, and more.
The lovely black box theatre, above the (extremely friendly) Hope and Anchor pub, is used to great effect by director Abigail Pickard Price, so that the audience is up close to the action: Dr Antonia Innes-Kerr is a brilliant surgeon who, under the thumb of her evil mother, has not had children. She has a dull husband, a hot colleague against whom she is testifying, a lower-class friend whom she meets in a park and a bunch of students at a Cambridge College who ask rude and personal questions. In a bewildering succession, we jump between these locations. Interlude scenes in the ER, full of medical people saying numbers and acronyms really fast, which provide some of the back-story, are nothing we’ve not seen on TV – and even in theatre – many, many times. Except, in these, it bizarrely highlights Dr Antonia’s unfamiliarity with a DNR order, or at least her reluctance to obey it, despite being ‘one of the most gifted surgeons of her generation’.
Samara has written a careful structure into the play, so that there are a number of locations we flick between: the park, the ER, the train, a Q&A at Dr Antonia’s Cambridge alma mater, her mum’s house. Even though the eerie, simple set remains the same – hospital bed, medicine cabinets lit from within – Abigail Pickard Price’s direction blocks each of these locations distinctly, so that we always know where we are. The set also takes on different meanings throughout the play: rows of jars filled with some thick red liquid at first are full of blood, maybe – this is a hospital after all. Then, back at mum’s house, Dr Antonia pops one open and slathers some jam onto a scone. The clinical storage of these (possibly) bodily fluids plays gruesomely into the story, too: as Dr Antonia desperately seeks to become pregnant, eventually by artificial insemination, there’s something icky and inhuman about these clinical, sanitised jars of sticky liquid.
But there are some big problems with the script. It never quite cuts to the heart of what it wants to say about motherhood and femininity. Although the plot hinges on a technicality of law – that a woman must have her husband’s permission for artificial insemination – the play exists in a world that is too grotesquely abstracted from ours to explore the ramifications of that technicality. A central tension in the plot – whether Dr Antonia should testify against her colleague Dr O’Shea or ask for his sperm – is barely believable, and instead makes Dr Antonia out to be borderline psychopathic. Meanwhile, the Q&A session at Clever College Cambridge, to which we periodically return, is an opportunity for heavy-handed backstory exposition wholeheartedly seized by Samara.
Dr O’Shea should be in the ER but he’s not because he’s – guess what? – playing golf. That’s not the only cliche: there’s a slightly tokenistic working class character who shops at Primark and is wowed by words like cardio-thoracic. She’s probably not meant to be a shallow stereotype – in fact, she has some moving moments in describing being a mother – but she is set up to be a contrast to Dr Antonia who is, as we can tell from the badly forced approximation of ‘posh’, stuck-up and absolutely committed to greatness above all else.
As Dr Antonia keeps meeting the working class woman in the park, she gradually breaks away from the cold celibacy imposed on her by her own deranged mother and decides she’d quite like to have a ‘sound gamete’ (because she’s a gifted geek surgeon, you see, she uses phrases like ‘sound gamete’ instead of child so that the audience can have a chuckle).
Baby tries to exist in a semi-recognisable world, but then no-one really says anything that makes sense. Dr Antonia is married, but she and the husband don’t act like they’ve ever met before. The doctor whose career she destroyed is still perfectly happy to inseminate her, either artificially or mano-a-mano. Its dark tone and stark design by Christopher Hone, make this a bleak play in which the characters have few, if any, redeeming qualities. Pickard Price’s direction and Hone’s design use the adaptable space to great effect, but the script doesn’t dig deep enough into what it wants to say.