Anna is 39, with a slew of relationships behind her. She wants a child, but Tom, her latest failed boyfriend, has just talked himself out of it with tearful self-absorption. Anna fears that her time is running out and she doesn’t want to wait, only to be let down again. But is she ready to be a single mum? And how?
‘Stories’, Nina Raine’s follow up to her acclaimed play ‘Consent’, is an occasionally mercilessly witty but baggy exploration of the tales that society surrounds women with regarding motherhood. To Anna’s fearful eyes, there’s a spectrum that starts with a little girl and ends with an old woman dying alone.
‘Stories’ is sharpest when it’s taking aim at the gendered reality of this century’s seductive sense of freedom of choice for women who want to reproduce on their own terms. From IVF, to online sperm donation, to asking a friend of every sexual persuasion, the men still set the terms.
Raine’s characterisation of the varied parade of pricks Anna approaches about sperm donation is often hilariously well-observed. They’re cartoon exaggerations but ones that flay their self-aggrandising real-world reference points to the bone. Most who say no to Anna can’t see her as anything other than a bit-part in their own story.
Sam Troughton, who plays all of them, from douche DJ to pretentious film director, is a laughter-generating machine. He’s properly funny. But there’s also an imbalance, an irony that doesn’t feel entirely deliberate, in how he dominates certain scenes. The assholes become the star attraction.
Raine’s own production also can’t disguise how episodic the play becomes, while some of the emotional shifts lurch into each other. The writing throws human obstacles in Anna’s way that show her quest in a more complex, more selfish light. But these characters – like the angry, grown-up child of anonymous sperm donation – feel stilted.
‘Stories’ also never digs that deeply or insightfully into the privilege granted by Anna’s reasonably well-off background in a situation where money really matters, apart from some online ‘window-shopping’ early on. By focusing so narrowly on the emotional landscape, some scenes, while sharp, feel untethered.
It’s to Claudie Blakely’s credit that she anchors everything as Anna. Effortlessly funny one minute, her voice is cracked with grief and spiky frustration the next, as she faces yet another guy who's let her down across the production's traverse stage. The messy humanity of her performance brings out the play’s astuteness.