Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Opened 11 September, 1998

A psychology lecturer pulls a cuddly toy rat on a string across the living-room floor to cure his wife's phobia; she absent-mindedly walks Hoovering into the room where hubby's old university friend is donating sperm for the couple's DIY artificial insemination programme; he, in turn, later chances upon the lecturer's Other Woman, a student still dressed as a bee from the previous night's fancy-dress party, who tries in embarrassment to hide her posterior sting from him.

David Lewis has a fine eye and ear for the ridiculous (the play also includes one of the greatest "knob gags" I have ever heard), but his first full-length play Sperm Wars is in fact a beautifully balanced tragi-comedy. Lucy and Matthew (Amanda Royle and the excellently distracted Jeremy Crutchley) are a couple used to drag-out arguing; they may claim that it only ever happens at the time of the monthly insemination ritual, but this is all we see of them. Matthew's insecurity about his potency leads him both to write professional monographs and compile amateur graphs on the question, and to choose as his donor Barry, the archetypal boring accountant (actuary, actually) who would seem as little threat to him in the virility as in the personality stakes Matt knows all about sperm-competition theory and wants somehow to increase Lucy's chances of pregnancy without diminishing his own of fatherhood.

Lewis skilfully deploys each laugh to limber us up for the next moment at which the general unease of the subject tips over into acute discomfort; often the elements are inseparable, as when Matthew, gesturing rhetorically with a Pyrex beaker containing a semen sample, spills it on the upholstery, or when he maliciously forces his sometime mistress Zoë and Barry to enact the "sperm war" scenario, dressed as they are as a bee and a rat respectively. It is an accomplished Ayckbournian mix of smiles and shudders. Sam Walters's direction often appears (no doubt falsely) to have a lighter touch on contemporary plays than older revivals or adaptations, and such is the case here: close directorial attention is given to the slightest glances, and even the casually strewn copy of Time Out has its television listings pages turned over between scenes to signify the passage of days of the week. Lewis seems briefly to labour now and then with either a line or a plot point; overall, however, Sperm Wars is a debut which does not simply show promise but substantially delivers in itself.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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