“Welcome to our ward” reads the sign above the Finborough Theatre door, in an instantly recognisable NHS white and blue sans serif font. This pithy welcome works in tandem with an almost immersive set design, the small stage transformed into a two bed ward: with blancmange pink walls and a grotesque lino disturbingly flesh-like in tone, it is perfectly, swoon-inducingly medical. Initially the set is screened from the audience by green concertina curtains, which pull back to reveal an exquisitely designed set, complete with hand sanitiser on the walls, oxygen tubes and hilariously “soothing” pictures of abstract, yonic flowers. We are in the gynaecologic oncology unit after all, although it seems a shame that the set is the only aspect of this play that interacts with this specificity: jokes are made, fear is felt, death occurs, but we could be in any cancer unit. Something is lost in the writing here, and although it isn’t the job of any artist to engage with all world issues in one fell swoop it seems odd for a female playwright to set a play in the gynaecologic oncology unit and to barely once refer to this in the text, to not examine the specificity, the hilarity and horror of these particular illnesses in this particular setting.
What is examined is the curious nature of human relationships, with a bit of a tendency towards romcom cliché: hopeless, older dude going through a divorce because his wife has “become” a lesbian; rookie comedy writer who presents a tough cookie exterior to the world but who is actually psychologically wrecked because of her upbringing by her bitchy, New York mom who wisecracks at her daughter’s expense, hiding a wealth of suffering beneath jokes and savage take-downs, secretly longing for a connection and validation in her life. Having said this, the actors work hard and do create moments of real connection, relaxing into the performance in some lovely, natural moments. Rob Crouch as Don (hopeless, older dude) is particularly good when he isn’t trying too hard, and Cariad Lloyd creates a sense of authenticity as the neurotic, narcissistic Karla (rookie comedy writer) – particularly enjoyable is her monologue about the “Funny Thing” that happened. Carla’s mom Marcie, played by Kristin Milward, is the real star of this peculiar show, burning with a bitterness and savagery as she slumps on her pillows, complaining about the fit of her nasal-catheter in no uncertain terms. She is the spirit animal of New York City, hard-nosed and hilarious. The scene between herself and Cara Chase as Geena, Don’s mother, is exquisitely played, with Chase delivering some of the funniest lines of the entire show with classy understatement. There are also some very touching moments, particularly in the final scenes between Karla and Marcie, with some really beautiful work done by Crouch, narrating the trials and joys of child-rearing in an exceptionally touching monologue.
Less touching was the bizarre, almost improvised-seeming love-scene between Karla and Don: it’s funny, and the script is great, with Karla narrating her psychologically destructive approach to relationships whilst being giving oral by Don in the unisex bathroom of their mothers’ ward. What was less funny was the kissing that preceded this scene: a choreography of deeply unsexy flat-lipped jabbing masquerading as steamy making-out. The impression was that the actors are either loath to make more physical contact than entirely necessary (in which case the scene ought to have been re-directed) or that the scene had not been directed sufficiently in the first instance, with the actors rather left to their own devices. Neither of these scenarios are particularly forgivable, with the director rather than the actors being culpable for the intense, un-erotic awkwardness of this scene. Just as with stage combat, intimacy direction and choreography is key, with bad work not only putting the actors in danger of some description but also breaking the concentrated engagement of the audience.
This seems to rather summarise this production, and this play: fantastic source material somehow underused. There are some touching moments and some cracking lines, but the only consistent excellence is provided by the set. This is a production of a play that doesn’t quite live up to the expectation generated by it’s bold and frankly glorious title.