Writer Nina Raine attempts to tackle a delicate subject with Stories, but fails to find a way to contribute anything new to the discussion around single parenthood
On face value, Stories at the National Theatre is a play which deconstructs the myths around single motherhood and archetypal notions of family. It is a sad reality that Stories achieves none of this and is propelled by convention and the tiresome thesis that Mother + Father = Good, Single Mother = Bad, Gay Parents= Fickle and Absent.
The play follows the story of hapless late-thirty-something singleton Anna (Claudie Blakley), who, after a string of unsuccessful relationships in her twenties, settles down to have a child with her boyfriend who gets cold feet shortly before going through with IVF. She is an upstanding actress with a strong sense of family, Christian values, and a divine plan which has her firmly placed at the centre of the universe. God’s presence in the play lends to the idea that Anna’s fate is predestined and is overtly referenced as Anna’s brother muses, ‘If God does exist, I don’t think he’s the plot- I think he’s the lighting’, whilst the characters are lit from a single stage light.
There is a cyclical narrative where we first meet the prospective sperm donor, a bumbling artist in baggy clothes, who anxiously offers Anna a bunch of inappropriately symbolic chrysanthemums. Soon, we are confronted with the boorish conservatism of Anna’s father (Stephen Boxer), a shouty, self-involved old man who is particularly fond of cheap racial stereotypes and sperm jokes (‘West Ghanaian… Israeli… sounds like a sheepdog!’). Anna is also disheartened by the bank’s inability to appease her racial preferences and asks, ‘Who’s going to stop me going into a barbershop in New Cross and having a one night stand with a Nigerian?’
The outmoded humour quickly becomes tedious, albeit, with an excellent, multifaceted performance from Sam Troughton as the various romantic interests including a drug-dealing DJ, a misanthropic Northern Irish actor, and a tea-brewing Tory, who, despite not wanting to become a father, romanticises the notion as he pontificates, ‘I was actually reading Knausgaard… the passage where he describes the birth of his child… I was in tears.’ Anna’s father champions a narrow-minded perception of parenthood which discredits any female experience and bemoans Anna’s biological ‘enslavement’, saying, “I find it frustrating that women have this biological urge to sign themselves up to what is essentially slavery.”
What is truly frustrating about Stories is that it had the potential to be so much more than it is. Rather than opening up a conversation around unconventional family constructions, it is a moralistic fable which upholds the presence of mother and father above all else. A throw-away secondary narrative flashes back to the character of Natasha, Anna’s landlady (Margot Leicester) during Anna’s footloose and sex-filled twenties.
It’s crushingly cliched, as Natasha confesses the ‘regret’ of her miscarried children whilst on her deathbed. Later, a singular account of an unhappy sperm-donor child in the third act acts as the play’s master narrative which condemns the conception of Anna’s child through sperm donation as ‘wrong’, due to an inevitable ‘identity crisis’. Ultimately, she returns to the avenue of ‘natural’ conception with a man she hasn’t met on the internet and the story concludes as we see Anna smiling knowingly to herself, thumbing a plastic container of spunk.