Breeders used to be a not-so-affectionate nickname for straight people – now, it’s a description that neatly titles a story of two modern gay people who, like this play, have set up comfortable home in the cultural mainstream. Ben Ockrent’s peppy new comedy centres on an affluent lesbian couple desperate to have a child that belongs to both of them, even if it means coralling a rather more feckless brother as a donor.
Or at least, it does in theory. But Ockrent’s real focus and interest seems to lie with the brother and sister duo who are locked in an awkward ballet of sperm-sharing collaboration. The play opens as Andrea and Jimmy sing Santa Lucia together in wavering harmony, before being joined by their baffled respective partners in fancy dress for the Swedish Saint’s Day celebration. Tamara Harvey’s quirky, lively direction saturates the play in the pair’s shared childhood, even soundtracking scene changes to Swedish covers of 1980s chart hits. With their respective partners, they move into one house together with the sole aim of making this baby – knocking off the rougher corners of their relationships in a slapstick, lively comedy.
Birthing a new play onto the West End is no joke, even for a comedy that’s so rich in surreal, sitcommy razmatazz. This production has taken the considerable precaution of securing two TV stars to play the couple that hold its ensemble cast of four in uneasy tension. Angela Griffin of Coronation Street fame is poised and confident as Caroline, a family lawyer who’s been argued into her very own maternity suit in the making. Her wife Andrea is Tamzin Outhwaite, playing a lesbian on stage for the second time after Amelia Bullmore’s Di and Viv and Rose – due a West End transfer in January. Outhwaite’s neurotic, hyperactive performance is hilarious, but its cold polish matches Griffin’s poise to make a central pairing with little emotional warmth or depth.
Sharon is a woman at the edge, hovering on the periphery of this oddly close sibling relationship. Caroline and Andrea have persuaded her to square off their baby-producing triad for moral support, and her frustration at her uncertain position in the household provides some of this play’s most heartrending moments. She sensitively realises Sharon’s mix of frantic protest against the baby’s appearance – what about the whales? – and compassionate resignation as the pregnancy test stays agonisingly negative.
Andrea’s tragi-comic obsession with Caroline’s fertility makes her impose protein shakes, headstands, and even heterosexual intercourse. Caroline’s desperate oneliner “I’ll do anything to have this baby but I won’t have sex” is one of the play’s few problematic laughs, coming too close of centuries-old orthodoxy that lesbian sex isn’t real.
Director Tamara Harvey has tried to inject some chemistry into this fertility cocktail-obsessed pairing, but the clinches feel like awkward experiments, not practiced couplings. And in the dubious company of a whole swamp of films and TV series that fixate on lesbian baby-making at the expense of the women involved, Ockrent’s text makes no significant attempt to construct queer identities for Caroline and Andrea. They’re pretty special unicorns as it is – not many same-sex couples are a glamorous half bestselling author, half hotshot lawyer – and that’s fine in this play’s hyper-reality. But it’s almost impossible to imagine how this pair met, or what their life is like outside the home they’ve turned into one big baby incubator.
Although the characters feel about as real as the Swedish fairies and gingerbread men they dress as for Santa Lucia’s day, they throw out plenty of genuinely funny one-liners. They’re hyperactive in a two-storey hamster cage of a set, throwing flour and tantrums but quite never throwing their audience off course, in a straightforward tale of baby-making bother.