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  Taking Care of Baby
Hampstead Theatre, London

Andrew Haydon
posted 6 June 2007

Taking Care of Baby is virtually impossible to review. If there’s a general feeling that theatre reviews shouldn’t give away vital plot twists or crucial devices, how do you report on a show that is all twist? At several points Dennis Kelly’s script engenders such a sense of meta-theatrical vertigo that it is like trying to absorb the stage equivalent of an Escher etching.

So, without too much recourse to what actually happens, here are the plain facts: the piece opens with text scrolling across several television screens: ‘The following has been taken word for word from interviews and correspondence. Nothing has been added and everything is in the subjects’ own words, though some editing has taken place. Names have not been changed’. The show concerns the story of Donna McAuliffe, a young mother who is convicted of the double murder of her children Megan and Jake, largely on the basis of evidence supplied by a psychologist that she is suffering from ‘Leeman Keatley Syndrome’. The conviction is subsequently overturned. There are strong echoes of the recent Sarah Clark, Trupti Patel and Angela Canning cases, in which the evidence of Professor Roy Meadow concerning Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy was discredited leading to successful appeals against their guilty verdicts.

Taking Care of Baby goes a lot further than simply offering a window on questionable psychological theorising. It raises questions about the nature of truth, and deliberate complicity with lies; about love and about trust; about the ethics of reporting, the ethics of verbatim theatre and about the way the media treats stories about child murder. It touches on contemporary anxieties about ‘life, the world, neo-cons in the American government, global warming, religious fundamentalism, poverty, third-world poverty’. It also says a good deal about parent-child relationships. But most impressively it manages the neat trick of making every single one of these elements feel absolutely central to the whole. The strength of the resonances here is astonishing – that since the piece began its run the country has been in the grip of the media hysteria over the disappearance of Madeleine McCann only serves to reinforce how exactly this piece nails contemporary Britain. The phonic similarities between her name and ‘Megan McAuliffe’, and indeed the name ‘Megan’ itself with its common connection to ‘Megan’s Law’, are also continually suggestive throughout.

That said, it sometimes feels, particularly in the second half, that Kelly could have wielded his editor’s pen more freely - that he has incorporated more material than strictly necessary. The addition of sections charting Donna’s mother’s political career, while casting an interesting additional light on the main subject, do often feel as if they have been included to allow a somewhat freighted commentary to intrude.

Anthony Clark has drawn some fine, detailed, naturalistic performances from his cast. Abigail Davies as the initially nervy, tense young mother and Christopher Ravenscroft’s depiction of the urbane, plummy, Alan Rickman-esque psychologist are both particularly fine, while Nick Sidi, as the father of the dead children, is so convincing that when at one stage he is performing the letters written by the father to Kelly - refusing to take part in the piece - and delivering the increasingly abusive missives to an audience including the author; it almost sets up some kind of postmodern feedback loop.

A curious aspect of the show is Patrick Connellan’s design. The action takes place on a largely bare stage, save for the occasional table, chair and sofa, but in front of what is essentially a large artwork resembling the Catholic kitsch of Pierre et Gilles surrounded by alternating television screens and illuminated panels reminiscent of Gilbert and George’s later works. At its centre is a large silver doll, surrounded by bright red model missiles and roses. While this reflects, on a very basic level, the text’s dual concerns with individual babies and global suffering, it nonetheless lends the proceedings a distinctly surreal edge.

The most unusual thing about the piece, however, is that it completely divides the audience into haves and have-nots. The item in question is a single piece of information, possession of which potentially changes one’s entire response to the show. And no, I’m not going to say what it is. However, from whichever position you approach it, Taking Care of Baby is a blisteringly acute take on contemporary Britain and a welcome return to form for the Hampstead. Highly recommended.


Till 23 June 2007

 

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