Writer and Director: Nina Raine
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Hot on the heels of Consent, which scored a West End transfer for the National, comes Nina Raine’s new play Stories, charting one woman’s journey to find a sperm donor. Despite some very fine acting, Stories seems like a pilot for an abandoned TV sitcom from twenty years ago.
Anna wants a baby and reaching the end of her 30s, and the end of another failed relationship, she now trawls the internet looking for sperm from suitable men. The men need to have a higher than normal intelligence rating, and they have to be under 40 as Anna believes that sperm from mature men could increase the risk of autism in her proposed child. Surprisingly, they aren’t many men to choose from.
Claudie Blakley is very good as Anna, quietly frustrated at her situation, but still managing to give a wry smile when things don’t go her way. However, Raine’s writing never allows us to properly empathise with Anna. We never really hear why she wants a baby, and there is no investigation of whether there is a biological imperative to bear children and neither is there an examination of society’s pressure on women to have children. One character suggests that motherhood is slavery, but that appears to be the extent of the debate.
Instead, the comic is highlighted, and Sam Troughton, as every one of her prospective sperm donors, has to carry most of the comedy. He also plays Tom, Anna’s 26 year-old boyfriend who bales out of fatherhood at the last minute, but his dithering tantrums make it hard for us to believe that Anna is devastated to lose him, and even harder to understand why she wants him back. Troughton plays all his characters with broad brushstrokes, and while this approach does raise a laugh or two, his portrayal of a ‘white’ Jamaican and then, later, a gay Essex boy seem, in this current climate, extremely questionable. The audience seemed a little stunned at the breezy camp tones and the sudden bitchiness of Rupert, who clutches imaginary pearls at his neck for most of his scene. Doesn’t Raine realise that gay men go to the theatre and would be quite surprised to see such an archaic stereotype?
The only relatable character is Anna’s father played by Stephen Boxer, who glides on and off stage in the same way as the tables and beds of Jeremy Herbert’s sleek and simple set. It’s a shame that Boxer’s part isn’t bigger. Thusitha Jayasundera is very good, too, in her two roles, but again these characters seem plucked out of dated sitcoms. Indeed, the opening scene of the play where a man goes off to a bathroom to watch porn and wank into a test-tube while Anna waits with a syringe is a familiar scene, common to many TV genres. It gets laughs but these are easy ones.
As a new comedy series for the BBC One’s Sunday schedule this would fit perfectly after the Strictly Results Show, but as a play at the National Theatre Stories really disappoints. The National should be nurturing new and exciting writing to be shown in its smallest space, The Dorfman. Unfortunately, Stories seems neither new nor exciting.
Runs until 28 November 2018 | Image: Sarah Lee