Of course, it’s pure coincidence that the royal pregnancy of the Duchess of Sussex was announced only a little before the curtain went up on Nina Raine’s new play, Stories, at the Dorfman auditorium of the National Theatre. But the news couldn’t be more apt, as the 37-year-old American former actress has much in common with Anna (Claudie Blakley), the heroine of the play –except the pregnancy. Anna is in her late thirties, and desperately wants a child, but unlike HRH, she lacks a source of the sperm required to conceive one. Like the former Ms Markle, Anna does something (unspecified, though there’s an implication that she’s a casting agent) in show biz, and is as warm, engaging, intelligent and prejudice-free as the Duchess appears to be. (The mixed-race Meghan doesn’t even seem to share the British nervousness about ginger-haired people: she after all married one.)
Anna, though, is still waiting for her Prince Harry to come. She has behind her a string of relationships, of which the most hopeful, Tom, is younger than she, but shares her interests, and seems at first appearance in the play (which is in Scene Three, when Anna is aged 38) to be equally broody. But at the end of the scene, wearing his running clothes, he tells her how much he loves her – as he abandons her. Anna is 40 when the play opens, brilliantly, in the “bachelor pad” of Felix, a gay art dealer; it takes a few minutes to understand that he has agreed to be Anna’s sperm donor – and until Scene Eighteen to realise that Scene One was a fast forward: that Anna is a year younger in Scene Two, when she is with her brother, Joseph and their parents, searching her laptop for images of commercial sperm donors.
The back story is that of the four other men who have let her down, of varying ages, professions and with different accents: Lachlan is a young Irish actor; Danny is a Sarf Londoner with hip-hop gestures and ambitions, innit? Corin is an aging, mostly posh-speaking director with the fame that goes with the chutzpah to have told Woody Allen to tone down his ad hoc dialogue on the Holocaust; and Rupert, a gay man with a partner, takes last-minute flight, urged on by the councillor all three have consulted. Tom’s baulking is the last straw, which is why Anna has now turned to the Internet to find a “babyfather.”
Besides the opening reveal of this tough-love comedy, Ms Raine’s genius touch is that all six men are played by the same actor. The magnificent Sam Troughton manages to vary not only his speech, but also his body-language for each role. We have six characters in search of a babymother, and all fail to come good – they are, despite their evident differences, all alike in their masculine fears of commitment, an ingenious homage to Pirandello. On the other hand, despite the character Anna’s resemblance in a few respects to both the Duchess of Sussex and the playwright (herself a recent mother), we learn little about her. We don’t know her job or her tastes (for the most part) in anything but men. She’d quite like a black West African babyfather, but she fears that might be an unkind, additional burden to bear for a single-parented, donor-conceived child. Would she have the imagination to make up the story that would explain all this to a toddler? In Stories this character, Anna, spends a good bit of time reading or inventing bed-time tales for the “between six and ten years old” Girl, the daughter of her old friend Beth. The Girl, played beautifully by Katie Simons at the opening night, also seems to become Anna’s shadow, as in Scene Eleven, when Anna is given the brush off by Lachlan:
He turns, about to go. The little GIRL speaks directly to LACHLAN.
GIRL. But you haven’t said yes or no.
Something similar happens in Scene Twelve, when the Girl seems to speak a line of Anna’s dialogue four times, following a line spoken by Anna herself, including the interval curtain line, “GIRL (after her). I don’t have anyone.”
And again, at the penultimate Scene Nineteen, which is the death of Natasha, a Holocaust survivor who was once Anna’s landlady, the Girl is involved – though it is not obvious to me whether the little Girl is her shadowing Anna or Natasha. Natasha is a problem character, in any case – of course, she represents the fact of death, in this play that interrogates birth, life and death; but dramatically she feels a touch superfluous to me. I’m tempted to say the same about the role of the Girl; but on reflection I think the problem is that the role makes impossible vocal demands on an actual child’s voice, as her shadow-comments are not only adult in their matter, but need also to be in their manner. For the sake of the drama, these lines need to be projected at the level of an adult voice, and that is asking too much of any but a few of the child actors I’ve ever seen –I can only think of Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Macaulay Culkin. (More puzzling is why Anna feels she needs to make a baby, rather than adopt one? Isn’t there something essentially selfish about wanting to bring up a fatherless child that is genetically half-related to you, when you could be saving an unrelated life? This is a question not touched on in the play, but surely raised by a moment’s consideration of Anna’s situation, and is probably part of Ms Raine’s intention, for though Anna is the protagonist of Stories, she is by no means heroic.)
These are tiny flaws, as Raine’s dramatic skills are epitomised in this play, as is her superlative flair for comedy. There are a lot of laughs in the impeccable in-the-round staging at the Dorfman, with designer Jeremy Herbert’s sliding sets and Bruno Poet’s striking lighting. Ms Raine herself directs, with the verve and brio we’ve come to expect from her productions. The odd thing, though, is that this is a drama that reads as well – better sometimes – as it plays. In the hustle-bustle of the stage, you inevitably miss a few lines – and not just the Girl’s –for the fullest expression of playwright Raine’s wit, you occasionally need to see the text. This does not detract one little bit from her command of stagecraft: even though her script’s few stage directions leave plenty of room for the person who directs the revivals of Stories – of which I expect there will be many.