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Theatre Review: Of Kith and Kin, Bush Theatre

4 December 2017
Appeared in BioNews 929

Of Kith and Kin is a play about surrogacy that seems to have little to say about surrogacy.

Daniel and Oli are a married couple. Daniel is in his mid-40s and Oli in his early 30s. As the play opens the couple are at home, having a 'baby shower' with their dear friend and surrogate Priya who is a few weeks from her due date. The couple are drinking and there is a lot of silliness and laughter.

We learn that Priya introduced the couple. She has her own teenage son and has previously acted as surrogate for her sister – 'I gave birth, she went straight into my sister's arms and we all held each other and, do you know what? I've never been so sure of anything in my life.'

Daniel's mother Lydia turns up unannounced and there is obvious tension between her and Oli, partly because of past slights and class differences but more obviously because Oli holds her responsible for his husband's abusive childhood and subsequent issues. Rather drunk, Oli refuses to ignore Lydia's barbed comments and criticises her openly for the fact that she was a bad mother – something he and Daniel have obviously discussed privately, but that Daniel is not comfortable raising with his mother.

An argument escalates and ends up with Daniel pinning Oli on the sofa, as Priya looks on, realising she has gone into labour.

The second act was, for me, the weak point. It takes place in the courtroom, as we discover Priya did not hand over the baby after the birth, but instead went to stay with her family in Manchester, taking the child.

The magistrate was wonderfully entertaining but her lines seemed more in keeping with a US court drama than a family court in the UK. I feel quite sure that no member of the British judiciary has ever described themselves as 'the mother of all end-of-level baddies' during child custody proceedings.

Daniel allows himself to be riled by Priya's lawyer Ms Kerr's questions and ends up calling her a 'butch ball breaker', swearing at Priya, and having a meltdown: 'Because I will not stand here and be subjected to this prurient and ugly examination of my life, and have intimate details about my family gouged out from me and picked at in this obscene way, because I will tell you something: that's abuse.'

Not only would this sort of behaviour be unlikely to be tolerated in court, but it is made all the more unbelievable by the fact that Daniel is supposedly an experienced solicitor. Daniel's choice to represent himself in such an emotionally charged hearing felt unrealistic. As a legal professional he would certainly have the knowledge to do so, but would surely have the experience to recognise that having a cool-headed counsel who is able to remain objective would be of benefit. Furthermore, Daniel makes a point of telling the court how much wealthier he and Oli are than Priya, so affording representation should not be a problem.

Ultimately the scene compromised believability for the sake of drama, and in doing so lost an opportunity to make a valuable point about how many parents are having to self-represent in court following legal aid cuts in recent years. Daniel's indignation at the questions being asked of him, and his emotionally charged outburst would all feel more authentic coming from a dad who feels at sea in the legal system.

The final act, back in Daniel and Oli's flat, sees the couple address the roots of their differences, and some difficult truths come out. The conversation between the couple in the first half of this act is where Chris Thompson's script really shines. The couple have not fallen out of love, but we see the gulf between their perspectives and their expectations of one another. It is tenderly written and moving. 

The performances were of a good standard. Daniel (James Lance) has the showiest part and felt a little heavy-handed at times. Joanna Bacon was excellent in her dual role as Daniel's infuriating mother and Priya's tenacious lawyer. Chetna Pandya as Priya and Joshua Silver as Oli were both wonderfully natural and relatable, and gently heart-wrenching in the final act.

After the play concluded I wanted to know so much more about Priya. We understand Priya's motives to become a surrogate, but we never hear her reasons for deciding to take the baby after the birth. Although we see the altercation that she sees, her thought process is never explained, as her lawyer does all the talking during the courtroom scene.

Despite bringing the couple together, performing their civil partnership and marriage and bearing their child, ultimately Priya is a narrative means-to-an-end. Her feelings and motivations are sidelined as unimportant to the central narrative of Daniel and Oli's relationship. Perhaps the play does have something to say about surrogacy after all.

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