Matthew Lunn reviews Nina Raine's Stories now playing in the Dorfman Theatre at the National Theatre.
National Theatre (Dorfman)
17 October 2018
Story-telling occupies a special place in human history. Our oral tradition is not only far older than the written word, but is empowered by memory, the mother of the muses. In this respect, it is a virtue of the wise mentor to tell stories to the young and curious, to give them the means of understanding the unknown. Stories provide knowledge, and comfort, but like our memories, are not inherently truthful, and used unwisely, are a source of self-deception.
Nina Raine’s Stories is empathetic, witty and deeply moving, examining the narratives created by and for ourselves, and the impact they have on our relationships. The play focuses on the difficulties that Anna (Claudie Blakley), in her late 30s and recently separated from her partner (Sam Troughton), faces trying to conceive a child via a sperm donor. She approaches various men in her life (all played by Troughton, in turn), her propositions evolving with her convictions, each interconnected story identifying something rich and strange about the human condition.
It is rare for such an impressive play – both beautifully written and delicately plotted – to be quite so enjoyable. Blakley is absolutely superb, not only bringing enormous warmth and humour to Anna but also an unerring dignity, which makes her story utterly compelling. She is aided by an exceptional supporting cast, the complexities of her undertaking and her desire to be a mother brilliantly mediated through her relationships with those closest to her.
The cast, with the exception of Anna and the child actress who plays the daughter of her friend Julie (Thusitha Jayasundera), perform multiple roles, which often act as foils to one another. Stephen Boxer plays Anna’s eccentric and somewhat unreliable father, in marked contrast to his performance as Paul, Julie’s husband, whose blithe observations that every story fits one of seven archetypes carry significant weight, but his dull delivery leads to him being interrupted before his conclusion. Margot Leicester plays two mother figures in Anna’s life. Firstly, her actual mother, whose kindness and naivety leads to a fascinating depiction and inversion of the mother/daughter bond, and Natasha, the elderly refugee with whom Anna once shared a house, and who dies filled with regret at not having a child. Brian Vernel twice plays a young man wise beyond their years, particularly poignant as the child of a sperm donation whose anger blossomed as he grew older, whilst Jayasundera not only plays the serenely offensive friend, but a hostile acquaintance who reminds us that we are not the heroes of other people’s stories.
This is extremely effective at compelling us to question how our relationships, our capacity for empathy and personal growth, are impacted by our experiences. The dynamic between Blakley and Troughton in his many guises is, in this respect, brilliantly observed. Particularly notable are separate instances of potential fathers having comparably panicky reactions to the donation process, but with striking differences in Anna’s emotional response, and the interplay between honesty and self-deception. Troughton is, in his own way, as impressive as Blakley, demonstrating a marvellous range of accents and depicting each character with unique behaviours and physicality.
Stories is thoughtful, poignant and exceptionally enjoyable. Focusing on one woman’s struggles to find a sperm donor, it explores the narratives that catalyse our behaviours and define our relationships. To say more is to ruin the story, and I hope you get the chance to experience it for yourself.