Stories: the play that paints a portrait of “baby longing”

The National Theatre’s play about fertility asks questions not just of its characters, but of its audience, says Rebecca Humphries

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By Rebecca Humphries on

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Would I make a good parent? When is the right time? Could I raise them on my own? Is that fair on the child? What if I don’t want kids? What if I can’t have them? Isn’t the world overpopulated anyway? If I have a baby, is it bad for the planet?

The subject of procreation can feel like a vortex of conflict and second-guessing. Just this weekend, statistics were released stating how IVF treatments are causing a decrease in adoption rates – more anxiety-inducing info on how we’re getting it wrong, how others are doing it better or, as is the case in Nina Raine’s Stories at the National’s Dorfman Theatre, what the right choice is. The character of Anna has made her choice: to have a baby. But obstacles both tangible (lack of sperm) and non (other people’s opinions, anyone?) mean what results is a sort of unorthodox romcom, where one woman’s search for love is threatened by biology, society and circumstance. Step aside, Julia Roberts – a fluffy chick-flick this ain’t.

Anna also feels the sharp stab of resentment at Tom having wasted her precious time

We meet Anna reeling from a break-up and learn that her now-ex-boyfriend Tom has, at 26, realised their long and intensive IVF treatment wasn’t what he wanted at all. In the wake of a broken relationship littered with broken promises, Anna also feels the sharp stab of resentment at Tom having wasted her precious time; she’s now 39, which means her baby longing feels more acute as each minute goes by. It’s what propels her into action – she will have a baby, even if it means narrowing her network down to potential candidates and putting it to each man in turn.

A wickedly funny concept. Indeed, the scenes between Anna and her list of dream donors (a veritable bloke buffet of vegan musicians, bumbling artists and the industry’s most pompous movie director, all played with aplomb by the same actor, Sam Troughton) range from out-and-out lol-fests to deeply moving exchanges. As the German dramatist Friedrich Hebbel once said, "A good play is one where everybody is right."

No great production is complete without a great central performance, and powerhouse actor Claudie Blakley as Anna turns in a sensitive, strong and really bloody cool portrayal that encapsulates the complexities of being an understanding person who, at the same time, has needs and desires of their own.

Stories zooms in on the darkly comic minutiae of everyday life and uses it to explore profound notions of mortality, family, loneliness and destiny. In one quietly devastating scene, Anna considers whether she has been "imposing a coherent narrative" on her life, allowing herself to believe all her past failures were leading up to an eventual happy ending. Maybe "everything happening for a reason" is what we comfort ourselves with in order to relinquish accountability for how our lives have turned out. (At the risk of becoming too morose, I’ll add this response from another character: "It must be dark… up your own arse.")

Witty, fierce and bursting with killer one-liners, Stories packs in a whole lot of heart and the boldness to ask questions not just of its audience, but of society.

Stories is playing now until 28 November at the National Theatre. Book here


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