Once I’m home I realise I’ve been a bit of an idiot – of course a show entitled Birth is also going to build in some loss. It’s theatrical one-in, one-out, the kind of storytelling we understand on a fundamental level because we live it every day. Cradle to grave stories are those that we can all relate to, to the extent that they’ve been strung out across every advertising campaign ever. The marketing trick is to wrench an emotional response out of the viewer, so then they’ll stick with Subway sandwiches no matter what because goddamnit, they ordered a 6″ herb and cheese after their first kiss and their first born will too.
So yes, it’s fair to say I was sceptical watching generations of women and men raising children, grown adults crawling the stage in infant glee. This is really unfair on the company: an ensemble who instantly are able to create a family dynamic with recognisable gestures, bashful chemistry and a real fluidity of movement to turn back the years without the action’s flash-forward/flash-back nature coming across as corny. Instead, it’s a cultural fatigue that is settling in with all of us at the moment. Cradle, grave, marriage, parenting. We’ve seen it all, we’ve bought the t-shirt (and the toilet cleaner, and the gravy).
There are so many story beats in these types of narrative which will resonate, and every audience member is bound to be hit with the emotional impact in a different combination of scenes or sequences. There’s a relatability pick ‘n’ mix at our feet, to the extent that it has almost an alienating effect. If we could see the show through another’s eyes, different scenes might well come to the fore: for me it’s Charles Sandford’s George’s careful courtship of Katherine (Claudia Marciano), and Sue (Vyte Garriga) sharing a tender moment with her granddaughter, which hit hardest.
Within the life events, the show is keen to acknowledge loss too. Again, it feels fairly run of the mill (I still welled up: I’m not a robot) – until, of course, it doesn’t.
The third act of Birth casts out on its own, abandoning the cosy ‘gather-round-the-table’ familiarity of what we’ve come to expect from the first hour. It plunges its characters into uncertainty, yet the longer I’ve had to sit with the show, the more obvious it seems in retrospect. Hints of postpartum depression which Marciano brushes away with maternal resilience come home to roost, and give Emily (EyglÃ³ Belafonte) a firmer role in the story.
There’s a dreamy quality to Emily’s earlier sequences, prompting us to question if her chapter of the story is even happening at first. The show entertains a magical realism up until this point, but it leaves all generation-hopping and roots itself in the present day until a confessional opens up lines of communication once more.
There’s not so much a conclusion as a carrying on, in the same way there’s no definite conclusion to most families. There’s constantly that open-ended, new generation peeping around the edges, dimension to what we understand our families to be, and that’s hinted at here too. A reconciliation, an opportunity at closure: it’s almost a step back into the recognisable and safe once more, but the effect is hopeful rather than rote. If these types of narratives are often designed for relatability, where what the audience really craves is a promise that everything’s going to be okay, then Theatre Re chooses realism. They can’t guarantee happiness, but they can pave the way towards the opportunity for it.
Birth was at York Theatre Royal on 17 July. It runs at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe throughout August. More info here.