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Phil Willmott

Review: STORIES at the National Theatre

Stories - National Theatre Playwright and director Nina Raine is extraordinarily talented, almost everything she writes and/or stages seems to attract awards and acclaim like a magnet. Her last major piece CONSENT transferred from the National Theatre to the West End and was a searing, funny and poignant mating dance to rival anything by Strindberg, Chekhov or Ibsen.

Hot on the heels of that triumph comes her new piece, STORIES, which she neatly stages, with the audience sitting on either side of the action, in the National Theatre’s smallest space, The Dorfman.

It concerns Anna (warmly and engagingly played by Claudie Blakely) who is single, approaching 40 and desperate to have a child. The play charts her journey through a series of encounters with potential sperm doners whilst she and her loveable family contemplate the issues involved. 

It’s laugh out loud funny, always engaging and thought provoking. Also, I can tell you from personal experience, that it perfectly capture the awkwardness, hope and desperation surrounding sperm donation.

Block type furniture slides on and off to create the many locations in the story which are played naturalistically. At one point I found myself wondering if it might be just as good, if not better on TV but there is an innate theatricality to experiencing this story with strangers and our affection for Anna quickly bonded us as an audience.

There are also a few non-naturalistic, non-TV, moments in which the action is juxtaposed by a little girl wandering through the action either as herself or a reflection of and mouthpiece for Anna’s thoughts. 

The most theatrical convention of the evening is to have most of the actors play several parts especially Sam Troughton who does a great job of differentiating between the 6 potential donors, often to hilarious effect, but it took me a while, not having read the programme, to realise that was what he was doing. Until then I thought he was the same character in several scenes and, as a result, got confused by the plot which also doesn’t always play out in chronological order.

As the proud uncle of a beautiful adopted nephew I also wondered why there was no point at which Anna considered adoption or fostering as an option. In my opinion, whilst there are so many kids in the care system desperate for a loving home, it is questionable whether the process of artificially creating another life to satisfy your need to be a parent, is the ethical way forward.

Raine’s central character isn’t blind to the issues of surrogacy either and one of the most telling, almost chilling, scenes is her encounter with an adult conceived via artificial insemination who wishes he hadn’t been.

You’ll have so much to talk about afterwards but you’ll also have been thoroughly entertained by a smart, witty, clever script exploring a first world dilemma, effectively staged and beautifully performed by a cast fully attuned to the humour and nuance of their characters and situation.