Many animals, such as meerkats, engage in ‘co-operative breeding’, in which a tribe of adult animals collectively raises their young. Ben Ockrent’s new comedy, Breeders, is a witty and enjoyable look at modern parenthood and alternative families. Yet, in refusing to deeply engage with the issues surrounding the bringing of children into the world and being content to play for laughs, dismissing the more serious matters with a series of jokes or zinging one-liners, Breeders is ultimately frustrating and unsatisfying.
Andrea (Tamzin Outhwaite) wants to have a baby with her partner, Caroline (Angela Griffin). Stressing the importance of both of them having a ‘biological connection’ to their child, Andrea asks her underachieving and slightly aimless brother Jimmy (Nicholas Burns) to be their sperm donor. In the spirit of co-operation, Andrea and Caroline invite Jimmy and his partner Sharon (Jemima Rooper) to move in with them. This uneasy and awkward situation – two couples in their thirties trying to get used to living together – provides much comic material, and Ockrent makes the most of it, though at times you wonder if it would be better suited to a television sitcom.
The cast do their best with an uneven script, but their characters feel thin and underdeveloped. Outhwaite and Griffin, sadly lacking in chemistry, fail to convince as a couple. Sharon is the most interesting of the four, and Rooper’s the most memorable performance; Ockrent does well to demonstrate what it might feel like for someone on the fringes of this very modern arrangement and Rooper, as well as being a brilliant comic actress, is convincing as the odd one out who doesn’t quite have a place in this new ‘family’.
Despite being a comedy, Breeders is actually at its best when it is not afraid to tackle some of the darkier, thornier issues surrounding procreation and parenthood, though only one is given satisfactory room to develop. For same-sex couples, procreation can be deeply unsexy in comparison to their heterosexual counterparts. At one point Andrea unwraps a medical bag full of implements and instruction manuals; there is no romantic element to this method of conception. As Caroline ruefully notes, ‘biology saps pleasure’. It’s an expensive and painful procedure, and the brutal reality of the ease of heterosexual conception only makes this more keenly felt. Other topical and important subjects such as the impact of children on the environment, the overwhelming desire (bordering on obsession) for biological children and how different women react to the ‘female imperative’ of societal pressure to procreate, are left unexplored or are closed down quickly with a another joke.
Director Tamara Harvey makes an interesting – and not entirely successful – choice in having the cast sing pop songs in Swedish during scene changes, causing the audience to collapse in confused laughter. She, like Ockrent, seems content to emphasise the more frivolous moments, which makes for an entertaining, if not deeply thought-provoking evening.
It is great to see a new play addressing the topical and controversial issues of same-sex parenting and the expansion of the traditional family model, and Breeders is an enjoyable theatrical experience. Ockrent clearly has a talent for comic writing, but it’s a shame that the overwhelming feeling is one of silliness and a sense of missed opportunity that such a complex and complicated situation is played for laughs, rather than offering us a more provocative examination of what it takes, and what it means, to be a family.