Review by Sam Waite
Same sex couples being given the right to marry, and to adopt children, have welcomed non-straight UK citizens to bask in the myriad of joys and horrors which often accompany these brave steps forward. In a premiere run at the King’s Head Theatre, Barry McStay’sBreeding seeks to unpack the endless baggage that begins when two people say, “I do,” but don’t, in many ways, agree on how best to build a life together.
Zeb and Eoin are a married couple seeking to adopt their first child, and Beth is the case worker tasked with gathering information so that a panel can assess their fitness. “Odd names,” Beth notes immediately, speaking directly to the audience before a flashback shows us them bonding over this shared oddness when first meeting. What follows is a gradually breaking down of boundaries, both intentional and entirely inappropriate, as deceit from the couple and emotional investment from Beth threaten to derail proceedings.
Playwright Barry McStay also plays Irish-born traditionalist Eoin, the driving force behind the more conventional elements of his and Zeb’s partnership, up to and certainly including the desire for a child. With his heart firmly on his sleeve, McStay’s performance gives a genuine tenderness to Eoin’s eagerness and nervousness around the adoption process – he so determinedly wants this that he is willing to lie to Beth to get what he wants, but his desire for a traditional family is so believable that you can’t turn against him.
Beth is portrayed by Aamira Challenger, who is set the difficult task of playing a professional who stays focused on her job while allowing the barriers between her and those she is assessing to rapidly wear down. Challenger is appropriately flat in the opening scenes, a woman on a mission who is not there to fraternise – however this quickly falls away as Beth finds herself enchanted by the couple she calls “the nice gays” in conversation with her own partner. A subplot about her and Amara undergoing IVF and repeatedly failing to conceive gives Challenger amble opportunity to flex her considerable range as a likeable and charismatic actress.
As Zeb, raised by nudists and with no real regard for what the “next step” in his life or relationship is supposed to be, Daniel Nicholson gives the finest performance of the three actors. His depth of emotion is explored in moments where Zeb is both easy to have disdain for (his openly begrudging their mundane life while drunk) and when he is perhaps the easiest to sympathise with, as when his partner refuses to allow Zeb’s cancer diagnosis to slow down the adoption. Beginning the play as a brash comedic presence allows for a nuanced display of Nicholson’s range as the role deepens immensely throughout the piece.
Matthew Iliffe’s direction makes great use of his talented trio of actors. He keeps the action simple, letting a change of direction signify a new setting, and the different positions of the actors on stage dictate the location and atmosphere. At one point the two men sit on storage boxes (doubling as seating throughout) beside one another but facing opposite directions, and when Beth stands beside each of them it is clear right away that they are in either separate rooms or the same room at different times. Aware of the diminutive nature of this theatre, neither he nor the actors have felt the need for grand gestures or bombastic displays of emotion – delicate, gentle changes and honest facial reactions serve to put the ideas and themes across in a more human, simplistic manner.
Ryan Joseph Stafford’s lighting design helps to set the various scenes and locations called for in the text. The harsh, over-lit nature of the hospital scenes makes it clear we are somewhere clinical and unpleasant, even before the conversation clarifies the brutal reality the characters are faced with. Elsewhere the scenes in the marital home are bathed in a warm glow that makes it easier to imagine the freshly tidied environment Eoin has engineered for Beth’s first visit to the house.
The script itself, by co-star McStay, provides as many moments for genuine amusement as it does for quiet contemplation. Ethics and morality are recurring themes, alongside the difficulties of building a life as part of a couple whose views often diametrically oppose one another. The slow burning (as slow as is possible in around 75 minutes) friendship between Beth and the two men has been shaped with an understanding of how unprofessional she is threatening to become, and how unscrupulous Eoin is becoming in his quest to win her and the panel over.
In spite of the charming, often witty dialogue and palpable chemistry of the performers, I did struggle to accept the show’s ending. While I won’t give anything away here, after just over an hour of contemplating different unethical decisions and how human beings can allow our better judgement to be overwhelmed by emotional thinking, the morals of the final scenes didn’t sit well with me. It’s a personal issue which many seemed not to have, but it left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth after a largely sweet, inviting evening.
Still, Breeding has that winning combination of a genuine heart and real, thought-provoking questions. With a playwright who has a clear grasp of his characters, a director who knows how to guide the topics at hand, and three universally strong acting performances, we may be witnessing the birth of a modern classic.
Breeding plays at the King’s Head Theatre until May 7th.
For tickets and more information visit https://kingsheadtheatre.com/whats-on/breeding
Photos by Ed Rees