“Racist comments don’t belong in a play about mothers and shit.” This succinct half-time summation given by a woman who had had her fill by the interval, highlights one of many moments sprinkled through Stories intended to prick at the consciences of the self-righteous. It’s Nina Raine’s game of Spot The Difference (between you and them) that I noted in 2016’s Consent, where she uses a “big issue” (last time rape, this time, just life) to illustrate our small - but human - flaws. The irony around the exit remark is that the air of self-belief around it could make it a line penned by Raine herself. But there’s such self-awareness in this clever observation of our lack of awareness, that you end up feeling it’s a little too smug for its own good.

It takes a lot of work for a reward that remains only interesting rather than inspiring.

The problem with both these plays is that without the knowledge of the game being played in the language, there is little else of interest. Taken just as comment on issues, Stories is just a story that throws out topics willy-nilly as it plods along.Centred around Anna (Claudie Blakley), who at 39 finds herself “dumped” (I use the word purposefully for the inference it gives of immaturity) by the younger chap she had lined up as her Baby Daddy, it’s a series of episodes that come and go to show the events she faces as she dawdles along to try to beat the biological clock and take up her right – maybe her sole purpose – to bear a child.

And so it pokes and prods at just about every possible connotation of controversy this begs without ever delving deeper. As with Consent, it ends up being a source of topics for the Festival of Student Debating Societies: Is it a woman’s right to have a child or are we all just selfish, needy loneliness avoiders? What makes anyone “deserving” – and is having a child a prize worth deserving? What defines the qualities of a good father other than our own views of what makes a good person? And who are we to judge someone who is honest enough to admit that they want their child to be physically attractive just because it doesn’t sound as ‘appropriate’ as wishing for their health and happiness?

It’s this last point which draws the lazy accusations of racism. A conversation takes place within the confines of Anna’s family home about the impact that the skin colour of a prospective sperm donor would have on the child’s own aesthete. It likely angers because the issue isn’t debated on stage – it’s not given more than a couple of minutes air time – and that just seems wrong to ignore. But don’t we all have definitions of attractiveness that we only mention to those close to us? Aren’t these views just slightly thoughtless rather than wrong? And be honest, who’s going to have the better life; the attractive kid that’s an average academic or the ugly one that may be a genius but no one wants to spend enough time with to find out ?

Big controversy but they are just crumbs thrown out for us to peck on. And there’s a couple of loaves’ worth of them. Diverting as they are from what’s actually important here – the small things that are said as we go along our individual roads, not the destination we are heading towards or the people who we meet. Raine goes some way to making this point clear as she gives each of the potential semen providers one dimension as well as one purpose. Each has a somewhat stereotype character trait – the floaty pretentious actor, the neurotic homosexual, the Essex Boy DJ and so on – to give the actor who plays them all, Sam Troughton, the scope to create a watchable enough showreel of range rather than depth and to give Raine to more people to deliver more of her words. Any heart becomes damaged by an unclear logic as it meanders along, doing the best it can. Which, not by any coincidence, is a pretty fair description of how most of us manage our way through life.

On the basis of her last two pieces, I would say that Nina Raine’s doesn’t writes good plays. But she does write good people. And she writes them bloody well. Underpinning everything is her acute sense of observation for the things that amuse rather than astound, irk rather than anger and dismay rather than destroy. One could draw parallels with Mike Leigh’s approach of starting from the very small elements of the personal and then creating upwards. But Raine has a way to go before she really finds her feet and has the confidence to do much less, and therefore serve something up that is much better. For now she is worth watching, but it takes a lot of work for a reward that remains only interesting rather than inspiring.

Reviews by Simon Ximenez

The Lyttelton Theatre

The Effect

Barbican Theatre

A Strange Loop

Olivier Theatre

Dear England

Lyttelton Theatre

The Motive and the Cue

Dorfman Theatre

Dixon and Daughters

Olivier Theatre

Dancing at Lughnasa


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The Blurb

The fertilisation of an idea.

How do you have a baby when you’re 39 and single?

This is the story of Anna. A story filled with many chapters, unexpected characters and curious plot twists.

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