Review - Stories at the National Theatre
How do you have a baby if you’re newly single, with no prospective father in sight, and time is literally running out, egg-by-egg? Nina Raine’s new play, Stories, looks at the lengths Anna - a 39-year-old very much in the last-chance saloon for motherhood – would go to take matters into her own hands and find a suitable baby-daddy. While this play is an often quite funny look at what it can take to be a single parent in the modern world, it verges on murky territory.
Having broken up with her younger, immature boyfriend, Anna’s forced to look elsewhere for sperm donors. She’s got plenty of options, she can either buy some top-notch seed from the internet, or hope one of the men she has asked will oblige her. She’s asked a football team-worth of men, and we meet a few: a pretentious celebrity actor, a successful urban music producer, a gay man hoping to have a baby. None of them seem to stick until she finds Felix, a pleasant art dealer, enthusiastic about being a part of the continuation of life.
Stories fully portrays the anguish of wanting something more than anything in the world, and that something being what we are conditioned to want for an early age. You connect with Anna quite easily and on a very human level, but the play never seems to take off. It throws a lot of ideas out, but a story doesn’t really develop. We get dredged down with stories about old landlords and the past that do have a bearing on who Anna is, but don’t shape the story.
Other scenes answer questions no one is asking. A conversation with Anna’s dad and brother sees the trio flicking through the Tinder-esque potential sperm donors, but their obsession with the men’s race feels gross. Contemplating certain men because their skin colour will produce a child with ‘tanned’ skin feels grim and uncomfortable; a discussion that was frankly unnecessary and something that shouldn’t be played for laughs in a play.
The play is, however, a lesson in comedy and character thanks to Sam Troughton, who plays all of the men(/potential semen dispensers) in Anna’s life. While some only appear for a few minutes, he creates vivid characters with usually hilarious reactions to being asked to do the ultimate favour. It’s exciting each time he re-emerges on stage to see what comes next.
Claudie Blakely is thoroughly believable as the tragically pained and tired Anna, but truth-be-told, despite feeling sorry for her, there isn’t really much to like about the character. It’s easy to emphasise with her struggle, but not so easy to care about her cause specifically. Especially when she can’t explain why she wants a baby.
Raine rouses strong empathy with her characters, but much of that comes from her play’s subject matter. I left feeling like there was more to know about Anna, and not just the other men she’d asked for sperm.