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Review: Breeding (King's Head Theatre)

Review by Harry Bower


In April last year, Breeding opened at the Kings Head Theatre in Angel. This year, it does so again, with new design, direction, and of course, in the Kings Head’s brand-new venue, just down the road from its old home. The marketing states that the play is back ‘popular demand’, and you can see why. It is an exceptionally well-written piece of theatre with depth and heart.


Eoin and Zeb are a gay couple recently married and ready to take the ‘obvious next step’; adopting a child. Or are they? Breeding takes us on the long and winding road of adoption through the eyes of both men, and their assigned assessor who is there to determine their ‘appropriateness’. As Beth from Southwark Council descends on the pair’s flat she peeks behind the curtain at their relationship, exposing strengths and fragilities which reveal them to be, as expected, a normal couple. As the snappy, realistic and funny dialogue zips us through flashbacks and different stages of the assessment though, we see that this is not necessarily a normal lived experience. As the piece makes clear, same sex couples’ experience of the adoption process is inherently more challenging, has far more checks and balances, and is immeasurably more frustrating for its participants than the (almost) frictionless straight alternative.

Those challenges are touched upon in moments; the homophobia experienced in parenting classes, the endless form filling and workbook completion asking opaque and blunt questions, the terminal lack of certainty. To writer Barry McStay’s credit the narrative is never blown off course by the temptation to explore such topics in more detail. The well-paced story of this relationship and its journey remain at the core of the piece, and it is better for it.


Instead we the audience are treated to laugh-out-loud moments in which relationship microaggressions are laid bare and the many layers of stormy compromise are stacked atop one another, in a physical manifestation of an emotional Jenga Tower, waiting for the smallest gust of wind to send it toppling. In the end it is a storm rather than a gust, which brings everyone crashing down to earth. Without spoiling the play’s twists and turns, Zeb and Eoin deal together with life-changing news which spurs a powerful if predictable twist toward the end of the show. The whole thing is neatly tied up in clever ways; McStay explores terminal illness, other parenthood methods such as IVF, and even the theatrically under-mined topic of data protection, along the way. What really shines in the writing is how real these characters feel. They are drawn with depth, compassion, humour and sensitivity. They are infinitely believable and warm. 

Performances throughout are strong; particularly from Nemide May, playing the ‘sorting hat’ of children, assessor Beth. There’s an understated stoic sensitivity in her performance which endears the audience to her character. Beth’s desperation toward the end of the piece could be quite hard to watch in the hands of a less accomplished actor, but May lets us feel Beth’s pain without ourselves feeling vulnerable. It’s a performance which feels controlled and measured yet raw and honest. Barry McStay, writer, actor, performs as one half of the aspiring parent couple, Eoin. Knowing the material inside and out doesn’t guarantee a good performance, and I took a few scenes to warm to his Eoin. The payoff in the final act is quite something and McStay fully earns the emotional crescendo. Dan Nicholson completes the trio and is cheeky, confident, and disarmingly vulnerable as Zeb. There is chemistry between the three performers which further convinces, and I found myself genuinely invested and believing in their relationships.


Breeding takes place in thrust, with an effective and well-thought out set design by Ruby Law. Costumes (also by Law) are well thought-out and evocatively represent each character in a unique and effective way. Lighting design by Rachel Sampley is suitably atmospheric without detracting from the narrative, and LEDs used within the set are a nice touch.


So far this review has been nothing but positive and you may be asking yourself what the play has to do to earn that fifth star. Unfortunately, I was a bit baffled by the stage setup and direction, both of which I found inconvenient and frustrating. The thrust isn’t used well at all and the blocking regularly leaves two thirds of the cast with their entire back to the middle section of the audience. At times I wondered if this was somehow intentional; a commentary on the unfairness and uncomfortable nature of these intrusive assessments, where we the audience can only focus on the stoney cold face of the assessor? But the longer the piece went on, the more I found myself shifting in my chair, craning and arching my neck to see around the person in front of me, trying to get a better view of the action. By the end I wondered if the whole thing might have been better done in proscenium.


Neckache aside, I left the Kings Head Theatre needing to dry my eyes and feeling thoroughly entertained. Breeding is a stellar piece of writing performed by a brilliant cast who more-than do the narrative justice. To be as restrained and naturalistic as McStay has done in writing such an evocative story is to be commended – I found it moving and impactful beyond its curtain call. The ending won’t be for everyone, and that’s okay; it is after all a piece of fiction. Personally I was pleased that having spent 80 minutes warming to (and liking) each character, that each of their stories came to a satisfying close. Well worth your time.


Breeding plays at The Kings Head Theatre until 14 April. For more information visit:


Photos by Ed Rees


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