I can’t pretend to know what Kim and Jack, the couple undergoing IVF in Lucy Joy Russell and Holly McFarlane’s play Stuffed, are going through. Having said that, as a childless woman in my 30s (who recently had a heated discussion with a male friend after he made the mistake of saying, in genuine bewilderment, “But don’t all women want kids?”) there are moments in the play that I can relate to a little bit too well.
Red Squash Theatre were most recently seen at the Hen and Chickens in their extremely daft Shakespearean comedy, Macbeeth. Stuffed is quite a different project and given the topic it unsurprisingly feels much more grounded in reality, but it retains a little of Macbeeth‘s delightfully surreal humour – largely in its portrayal of healthcare professionals, for some reason.
These moments aside, it’s actually quite a sad story, about a couple whose desperate need for a baby has taken over their lives to the obliteration of everything and everyone else, and to the point where even they can’t remember why they wanted to be parents in the first place. Every time the IVF fails, they have to deal not only with their own disappointment but also that of friends and acquaintances, whose well-meaning attempts to be helpful and comforting just end up making things ten times worse.
Faye Maughan and Ben Scheck are likeable and convincing as Kim and Jack, but it’s the scenes where their facade of brittle optimism slips and we glimpse the turmoil beneath that they really come into their own. Maughan in particular has a lost, fragile and exhausted look; this is most evident during scene changes, when she lingers aimlessly on stage while the other cast members rearrange the furniture around her.
Also excellent are Dorothy Cotter, as Kim and Jack’s old uni friend Grace, now a mother of three, and Alexander Tol as her husband Colin, a lovable geek with a heart of gold. It’s interesting and refreshing to see that it’s Grace, not Kim, who’s most excited about reigniting their friendship, and a welcome reminder that having children – no matter how much you love them – doesn’t make your life magically complete. Co-writer Holly McFarlane plays a number of roles but particularly stands out as Kim’s mum Frances, the one character who always seems to know exactly the right thing to say. Finally, director Rory Fairbairn completes the cast with a brief, humorous appearance as another friend’s teenage son.
From my own experience I can confirm that this heartwarming and poignant comedy – based on co-writer Lucy Joy Russell’s own experience of IVF – will have women of a certain age nodding in agreement (while also enjoying an excellent soundtrack of 90s tunes from Oasis, Alanis Morissette, Meredith Brooks and more). But as the play shows us only too well, the pressure and desire to have a baby isn’t something that only affects women; Jack’s pain is just as real as Kim’s, yet he often goes unnoticed as everyone falls over themselves to offer his wife sympathy and encouragement. And through Grace and Colin we see the story from the other side – the discomfort of never knowing the right thing to say, but also the sadness of seeing a friend so consumed by the idea of parenthood that they begin to slip away from us. Well acted and a bit of a tearjerker, this little gem of a play is definitely worth a visit.
Stuffed is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 17th March.
Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉