The week in theatre: A Child of Science; Wedding Band; No Love Songs – review

<span>‘Human desperation, pioneering research and the duty of care collide’: A Child of Science at Bristol Old Vic.</span><span>Photograph: Helen Murray</span>
‘Human desperation, pioneering research and the duty of care collide’: A Child of Science at Bristol Old Vic.Photograph: Helen Murray

In vitro fertilisation has become such a fact of life today that it’s hard to imagine how horrifying the idea seemed half a century ago, invoking a Boschian future of Frankenbabies and the upending of God’s will. The shocking opening of A Child of Science, Gareth Farr’s new play at Bristol Old Vic, turns this horror on its head with the image of a woman convulsing on a gurney after a botched backstreet abortion.

We’re in the 1950s, when reproductive rights were controlled by doctors under instruction from an old, male establishment. While the kindly gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe (Jamie Glover) manages the casualties on the wards, haunted by the ghosts of dead mothers, the driven physiologist Robert Edwards (Tom Felton) hunches over his microscope in pursuit of the holy grail of reproduction, the blastocyst. Together, two decades later, they make history as the creators of the world’s first test-tube baby.

The first act of Farr’s play is a bit of a mess, uncertain whether it wants to be a biopic of two pioneering scientists and their families or a history of science itself. Long passages of exposition overburden fleeting scenes introducing characters and scenarios, making Anna Fleischle’s mobile set of trundling screens seem ponderous. We’re simultaneously in London, Cambridge and Oldham, where a spirited young bride brings the superstition of her bossy mother down on her head by allowing her groom to glimpse her at a wedding dress fitting.

In the second act, under Matthew Dunster’s fluid direction, all this scene-setting pays off. Steptoe and Edwards have relocated to Oldham, and teamed up with the essential third member of their triumvirate, nurse Jean Purdy. The bride, Margaret, cursed with infertility, has become one of their guinea pigs, known only as Patient 38. Human desperation, pioneering research and the duty of care collide in a devastatingly economical scene in which one of Margaret’s eggs proves viable: to Steptoe’s horror, Edwards insists the science is not yet safe, so it must be destroyed. He is right, but with it go Margaret’s dreams of having a child.

From that moment, the play pivots into a deeply moving hymn to all those who entrusted their hopes and their bodies to science. The faces of women with lived experience of IVF sing out from the screens overhead as Meg Bellamy’s passionate Jean persuades Adelle Leonce’s raging Margaret to accept that from her personal tragedy will come hope for millions. This is the poetic paradox of the age of medical revolution.

It is a wonderful thing when a classic play rises out of its own times to speak to later generations. Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, Alice Childress’s stirring melodrama of interracial love in the US deep south amid the upheavals of the first world war, does this powerfully in Monique Touko’s new production. Between the play’s creation, in 1962, and the moment at which it is set, millions of African Americans were driven north in search of a better life.

We meet them at the point of departure, in a lodging house (beautifully outlined in Paul Wills’s airy set of broken picket fences and rusty window frames), where the arrival of a new lodger rattles the rickety social structure to its foundations. For seamstress Julia is hardly installed in her room before her white lover, Herman, comes to call. In a way that is deeply disturbing to those on both sides of the racial divide, this isn’t a brief, exploitative affair but a committed 10-year relationship denied legitimacy by an internalised racism that unfolds as vividly through the eye-rolls, tuttings and glory-be’s of Julia’s housemates as through the words that are exchanged. Diveen Henry and Lachele Carl are hilarious as the elderly custodians of a black dignity that the younger, illiterate Mattie (Bethan Mary-James) unaffectedly embodies.

Childress was too sophisticated a writer to lay all the blame at the feet of her white characters. Although Herman’s mother (Geraldine Alexander) is the comic embodiment of small-mindedness and his sister (Poppy Gilbert) a twitching mess of contradictions, they are a German immigrant family with their own legitimacy problems in a time of war. At the play’s heart is the tortured love between David Walmsley’s warm but weak Herman and Deborah Ayorinde’s Julia, whose initial glow slowly ignites into a glorious blaze of passionate rage. Touko has made all the right calls with a play that shows its age a bit in the verbosity of its denouement, but more than justifies being allowed to speak on its own terms.

Childress also wrote political musicals with her composer husband, Nathan Woodard. One can’t help but wonder what they would have made of the more recent phenomenon of the gig play, as exemplified by No Love Songs at Southwark Playhouse. This heartfelt story of postnatal depression is constructed round the songs from an autobiographical solo album by Kyle Falconer of the Dundee band the View.

After locking eyes and hearts over pints at a gay club gig, Jessie, an aspiring musician, and first-term fashion student Lana are whirled into unplanned parenthood at just the moment when Jessie’s career takes off. Away he jets on a US tour, leaving her home alone with the bairn, with near disastrous results.

This emotional rollercoaster is energetically performed by John McLarnon and Anna Russell-Martin with just a guitar and handheld mics, and a keyboard accompaniment from Gavin Whitworth. At one moment of high jeopardy the membrane between sound and staging is broken as the music stops and Whitworth leaves the room. But for all the commitment of the performances, the characters and drama remain locked inside the songs. The music itself is propulsive, with a couple of knockout numbers, but the script, by Falconer’s partner Laura Wilde and Johnny McKnight, is just a wraparound.

Star ratings (out of five)
A Child of Science
Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White ★★★★
No Love Songs ★★