Review: There or Here
Image: Park Theatre
Lucy Fenton as Robyn
Manish Gandhi as Rajit/ Raj
Ursula Mohan as Ellen/ Dr. Vittal
Chris Nayak as Ajay
Rakhee Thakrar as Neera/ Angelina/ Jessica/ Brittany/ Radiologist
When illness prevents Robyn and Ajay from having a child of their own, they outsource their pregnancy to a woman in India.
As they embark on this journey of a lifetime, their increasing inability to be each other's comfort drives them to seek solace from strangers on the other end of their phones.
The producer of Yellow Face, the 2013 sell-out hit (and National Theatre transfer) returns to Park Theatre with new American comedy There or Here, a PEN West Literary Award Finalist about outsourcing, motherhood and identity.
The often heartbreaking trials of conceiving a baby once again surface in this comedy drama from American writer Jennifer Maisel, which gets its UK premiere in this version at Islington's Park Theatre.
The need to find an alternative to natural conception is not a new subject for the theatre, and has been delivered (pardon the pun) in many different guises.
The Hope Theatre's recent production of My Gay Best Friend, for example, found a gay man providing one element of the ingedients required to make an offspring.
There or Here, though, focuses on surrogacy as the means to create a new human being, and a cross-cultural element in the story introduces and combines many other factors into the overall thematic mix.
On one level, that enhances the show's worth since it provides an abundant harvest of ideas and issues for us to mull-over and digest.
On the other hand, it's not so easy to determine just what the play's real message is, even if there's a clear central thread about the controversial issue of surrogacy.
The play focuses on American couple Robyn (Lucy Fenton) and Ajay (Chris Nayak).
With established careers, they are anxious to have child, but with Robyn also fighting cancer the couple decide to employ a surrogate in India to have a child on their behalf using their own genetic material.
Initially at least, time within the play is not continually linear, so we first meet Ajay and Robyn already in India and about to meet the surrogate mother, before jumping back in time to discover how they came to be there in the first place.
India is significant here not only because surrogacy is a fraction of the cost than in America (or was in 2006 when the play is set).
The subcontinent was also Ajay's birthplace and home before his parents escaped poverty to live the American Dream.
Moreover, we also find connections with India's thriving technology sector, notably in the customer service lines which Robyn utlises, not merely for technical support but almost as therapy to off-load her obsessions and worries to the amenable operators in legthy discourses that sometimes feel tedious, even if her verbal musings do help describe her personality.
Ajay is a fast-food addict who doesn't always seem to meet with his partner's emotional approval, and their lack of sympathetic communication forces Robyn to seek out some semblance of support elsewhere, which is where the telephone operators find an unexpected role.
Director Vik Sivalingham sets a fairly brisk pace for proceedings, ably managing the gear-shifts from comedic moments to more moving and senstive scenes with stylish ease, and providing much to savour in the performances from a highly accomplished cast.
Technology, parenthood, surrogacy, desparation, poverty, trust, morality and communication all figure in this interestingly multi-layered play which, tangentially, acts as a reminder of the complexity of our modern lives, that forces us sometimes into decisions that may have unforseen but profound moral implications.
Though it teeters on the brink of drowning in issues, There or Here just manages to keep its head above the dramatic waterline, providing enough humour and contrasting emotional drama to both entertain and engage, and leaving us with an enigmatic but optimistic ending.
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