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Theatre Review: Stuffed

19 March 2018
By Sarah Norcross
Director, Progress Educational Trust
Appeared in BioNews 942

Much as I love a laugh and a joke, 'Stuffed', billed as a comedy about fertility and IVF, seemed to me to have the potential of being insensitive and in poor taste - would I and the audience see the funny side? Would it or could it come across as 'smug fertiles' mocking those who struggle to conceive?

Stuffed, written by Lucy Joy Russell and Holly McFarlane and staged at the Brockley Jack Theatre in London, tells the story of Kim (played by Faye Maughan) and partner Jack (played by Ben Scheck) and their struggle to have a baby.

The play starts with a chance encounter on a busy commuter train – Kim meets an old university friend on the train – of course, the friend Grace (played by Dorothy Cotter) is now a mother of three. Kim is on the way to an appointment to see a fertility consultant but she doesn't share this with her friend.

Throughout the play we learn snippets about IVF through the doctors: a very funny PowerPoint presentation outlines the basics of IVF near the start. We also gain insights through Kim's chats with her mum on the phone, her mum trying her best to get her head around all the technology - for example, ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) reminds her of the TV show CSI. Holly McFarlane played the mum brilliantly; warm and loving but with a touch of Joyce Grenfell.

These scenes worked well, explained some of the basics, and questions some of the advice that people are given. I was pleased to see Kim and Jack question the need for ICSI when tests had shown that Jack had great sperm. In their conversations with friends they discussed and laughed about fertility crystals and a fertility astrologer – it seemed they had tried them but no surprise, they didn't work.

The play focuses the impact of infertility on Kim who we learn is 40 – what should she wear, what about her job, should she get a new hobby, should she continue with treatment, should she go to a university reunion?

The relationship between Kim and Jack is tested, as is their friendship with Grace and Colin (played by Alexander Tol). Too much booze and the presence of Grace's new friend, the pregnant and tactless Carole (also played by Holly McFarlane) causes Kim to explode.

This was a low-budget production in a tiny theatre above a pub but the story was compelling and the acting was good so that it didn't matter. The music between the scenes was very well chosen and I noticed a few people singing along.

'Hello darkness my old friend' Simon and Garfunkel sing during one medical consultation which sees Jack, the doctor and Kim have a power struggle with the remote  over the volume of the music - a reference perhaps to the balance of power and the need for patients to maintain some form of control in a medical setting. The absurdity of the situation gave rise to much laughter in an otherwise poignant scene.

While we don't all agree about what is funny and there will always be those who think that some subjects are beyond humour, Russell and McFarlane should be applauded for getting the use of comedy in Stuffed spot on.

They didn't shy away from the pain of infertility and the impact on the couple and those around them, and I thought the use of humour was a different approach to getting people to understand that rather than trivialising it, there was no doubt this play was tackling some serious issues.

I heard many people laughing and I saw the odd person dabbing away a tear – I found it moving and uplifting.

I would recommend it and hope it transfers to other theatres.

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