Lloyd Evans

Baby love | 25 October 2018

Plus: good undemanding fun from Nina Raine’s new bun-in-the-oven play Stories at the Noël Coward Theatre

Baby love | 25 October 2018
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Dorfman Theatre, until 28 November

The Inheritance

Noël Coward Theatre, booking until 19 January 2019

Stories by Nina Raine is a bun-in-the-oven comedy with a complex back narrative. Anna, in her mid-thirties, had a boyfriend 12 years younger than her but the relationship died just as Anna was ready to sprog. Aged 38, and desperately broody, she needs to get preggers pronto. We join her on a Sperm Quest. Though Anna could easily arrange a casual bareback fling, she insists on divulging her goal to her prospective lovers before they drop their Y-fronts and deliver the oats.

The action opens as a family drama with Anna’s Dad (Stephen Boxer) pottering around the kitchen, drink in hand, making sarky comments about Anna’s sex life while she sits at a laptop scrolling through mugshots of potential dads. Her brother (Brian Vernal) tosses in comic asides of his own. I wanted to hear more from this family of witty goofballs but the script has an interest in social anthropology and it takes us on a guided tour of male archetypes. All of the possible fathers are played by the brilliant Sam Troughton who uses the play as a showcase for his virtuoso talents.

We also wander up a few scenic byways. Anna enjoys an evening of proxy parenthood while babysitting a friend’s daughter. ‘What would happen if you slapped the sun?’ asks the charming nipper. We hear of a tragic Russian Jewess who fled pogroms in the 1930s but found happiness as a landlady in Belsize Park. There are many amusing digressions of this sort and they hide the fact that Anna (nicely played by Claudie Blakley) is dramatically inert. Her character is well drawn: an amusing, highly sociable and morally principled theatre director. But her predicament is static. She’s incapable of growing or changing, except in the most obvious way, at the waistline.

And the narrative is structured as a fragmented patchwork whose proper alignment becomes clear only in the final scene. This is a substitute for suspense and although the replacement works well enough, the play would be more satisfying with a clearer focus on Anna’s inner life. Raine’s last script, Consent, was memorable for its sexual intensity and its savage wordplay. This is a more relaxed and playful affair, a pipe-and-slippers Sunday evening comedy. Good undemanding fun.

The Inheritance is an imitation of Howards End set among gay rich New York artistes. Wow, it’s camp. Twelve male actors mince around the stage like a platoon of Larry Graysons, crooking their wrists, rolling their shoulders, posing hand on hip and saying ‘ooh!’ while rolling their eyes. The high-concept narrative opens in a writers’ workshop where the gay scribblers are learning how to create the great American novel with the help of a mythical guru, E.M. Forster. Paul Hilton plays him like Tony Benn impersonating Clement Attlee. If you enjoy seeing strapping young lads prancing around the footlights, you’ll warm to this display of fake improvisation.

If you’re neutral you’ll slip into a coma before the first interval. (There are five in all.) The reptilian plot takes an hour to tell us this: Luke is engaged to Toby but resents Toby’s new friend, Adam. Next, a morbid trip through the Aids nightmare of the 1980s narrated by Walter, a high-minded bore. Then, the frat boys contemplate a Trump victory which worries them far more than Aids. Then, a dispute over an inherited country house. Then, the gay apostles hold a camp discussion about why camp men are so camp. This wins the Campest Scene Ever award. (Previous winner: the play’s opening scene.) In Part Two Vanessa Redgrave pops up as a dotty matron in dungarees who witters a lot about very little.

Anyone hoping for a faithful update of the novel will be disappointed. E.M. Forster’s original tried, rather laboriously, to contrast the artistic and rational impulses in human nature by opposing a nice kind family with a nasty selfish family. This version doesn’t even set itself that modest goal. Writer Matthew Lopez ditches most of Forster’s narrative and concentrates instead on the tribulations of rich, arty gay men in Manhattan. That’s not me, of course. But I would dispute that my lack of interest is my fault. After all, I found the Odyssey quite interesting and I’m not a homeless Greek warlord.

A glance in the programme notes reveals the real problem. A throng of 19 co-producers (half that number would be a lot) have invested money in this and are hoping for big profits when the show becomes a Netflix box set. Stephen Daldry, the man behind The Crown, is the director. This isn’t a piece of theatre, it’s a mesmerically boring TV pilot that made me spend an entire Saturday wishing I was in an oxygen tent.

A single line was worth hearing. ‘My heart is pure, unfortunately it’s surrounded by the rest of me.’ There. I saved you one day of your life.