Tuesday, 28 February, 2006
Review by: 
Peter Brown

Next stop on my voyage round the fringe was the New End Theatre in Hampstead. Going to see a play about 'begetting' babies had a vaguely biblical quality about it that made me feel like one of the magi - minus the camel and the myrrh of course. Thankfully it passed rather quickly, and without recognisable side effects.

Carl Djerassi, the author of 'Taboos', should know a thing or two about 'begetting' children because he's better known as 'the father of the contraceptive pill' - though that title suggests he might know rather less about begetting, and more in the way of 'not begetting'. Either way, like most parents, he's not learned enough about letting his own baby 'fly the nest' to grow up on its own, as I'll explain in due course.

Harriet (played by Jane Perry) and Sally (Nicola Bryant) are lesbians living in a committed relationship in San Francisco. Sally wants a child, and Harriet's brother, Max, has offered to provide the tadpoles (or sperm, if you prefer). Sally's brother Cameron (played by Jeremy Lindsay Taylor)) is invited to the ‘fertilisation party', although he’s unaware of the reasons for the celebrations. As a (fairly) fundamental Christian, he's horrified when events are revealed. But Cameron would have been better advised to reserve his judgement, as things can often backfire and they do. Because Cameron and his wife are having troubles in the begetting department themselves, and start to think about the possibility of using medical science to deliver the goods. And Harriet, who has gone along with Sally's baby-making plans with scientific approval and thoroughness, starts getting broody when she sees Sally with her baby.

Although I won't spoil the plot, it's not hard to see where this 5-handed egg-sperm swap story is going and the issues it raises. Describing the play makes it sound contrived, but it didn't seem so while we were watching it. Of course, Djerassi's used a device to put all the angles of this complex subject into one play. That's acceptable because there are many issues surrounding sperm and egg donors, IVF treatment and the like. For example, the family relationships alone can start to get mind-bogglingly complex and muddled. But the other questions this story provokes are more disturbing and difficult to settle, and are rapidly becoming ever more complex as science races ahead of both the general public and our tortoise-like politicians.

A theme running through 'Taboos' is the concept of 'keeping it in the family' - which in some subject areas would be commendable, but in the arena of human reproduction sounds at least dubious, and at worst, something which might lead to incarceration at Her Majesty's pleasure. It's mentioned, however, time and time again - frequently the characters refer to it as a motive for their actions. But one could easily argue that it would be better to keep it 'outside' the family, but Djerassi obviously doesn't see it like that, or maybe he does and is trying to convince us.

Given a play about babies, we weren't going to get away without having to endure some baby bawling. In one scene in particular there was so much of the peculiar wailing that I could have cheerfully rushed down to the stage and throttled the infant myself - that is, if it were not for the fact that the 'child' was a doll. But that's the price of realism in the theatre, and one that, regrettably, one has to pay.

What was less endurable, and possibly what blew the entire evening for me, was the feeble ending - a contrivance that perhaps could only be dreamed-up in San Francisco (and I mean no disrespect to the inhabitants of that small and beautiful city, several of whom are close friends) or by a playwright intent on a ‘happy’ ending. Up to that point, the play had captured our interest and stimulated thought, and Djerassi had posed the right questions. So there really was no need to try and settle it for us - we would have been quite capable of mulling over all the issues in the pub later. Sometimes, it's not a question of what to put into a play, but what you must leave out. Here, there was ample room to make the first half a bit shorter, and drop a lot of the last scene. And that's what I meant at the start. Djerassi hasn't grasped the idea of 'letting his baby go' to grow up on its own - with a bit of help from an intelligent audience.

A good ensemble piece, the acting was generally convincing and everything seemed to be going along swimmingly until the final scene, when I even detected a note of discomfort from the cast as they, like the audience, started wrestling with the weakness of the ending.

All-in-all though, this is a play that’s worth seeing because it explores complex moral and ethical dilemmas - many of which may seem insoluble. But given the frantic, high-tech pace of scientific advance, these issues can't be brushed aside indefinitely.


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