About 500 – Union Theatre, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer and Director: Simona Hughes

About 500 by Simona Hughes is a compelling, witty drama about women and fertility. In the punchy opening, thirty-year-old Clem, meeting Luke at a wedding, recognises him from his Match.com profile. They laugh in embarrassment and delight after she asks him why he never responded to her first tentative message. Face-to-face, the chemistry is obvious and when we see them next, they’ve moved in together. Stephanie Fuller as Clem and Dickon Farmar as Luke are utterly convincing as the couple in the joyfully erotic delight of a new relationship. The shadows on the horizon are only faint: Luke’s 65-year-old mother is experiencing memory loss. There is an off-stage cat which repeatedly goes missing.

The question about having a baby will come to dominate their lives, but at this stage Clem isn’t that concerned. It is Luke who clearly wants to become a father. Meanwhile Clem’s best friend Ruth (a sympathetic Joanna Nevin) has a toddler and a disintegrating marriage. ‘Don’t have kids!’ she warns. But when, now 34, Clem tells Luke she has news, he can scarcely hide his disappointment that it’s a promotion, not pregnancy.

Hughes employs strongly expressive images. The play’s title refers to the finite number of a woman’s viable eggs and projected numbers drop vertiginously as Clem lives through her thirties. In voice over, we hear snippets of interviews of other women’s experiences of trying to conceive. Clem’s potential fertility has been manifest from the start – we’d seen her scattering handfuls of small white balls of chalk with careless abandon. But as time passes, the chalk balls crushed underfoot, she begins to obsess about how many she might have left. She is blindsided to learn fertility reaches a cliff edge not at 40 but at 35.

Hughes’ script pinpoints the moments when a once spontaneous sex-life first becomes strained and then starts to curdle. Understanding Luke withdraws into silence. Meanwhile, counterpointing Clem’s increasing obsession with getting pregnant, Ruth’s life begins to transform in other ways.

‘We don’t know how the story ends,’ Clem says poignantly, facing yet another round of IVF. Will the play give us the ‘happy’ ending of pregnancy? Or must she accept women’s alternative fate: childlessness? Hughes’ strategy here is brilliant.

In many ways it’s a familiar story – that, of course, is the point. But Hughes’ warm, deeply informed, emotionally mature script reimagines the many ways fertility has affected so many of our relationships and friendships.

Runs until 11 February 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Funny, profound drama

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