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If there is one difference between the sexes that can generally be agreed upon, it is that men tend to focus on one thing, while women are natural multi-taskers. Playwright Hannah Patterson is a prime example of the latter, aiming to tackle such minor issues as parenting, sexual politics, work/life balance, new/old media, education, ageing and shifting 21st-century gender roles through a blend of socially awkward comedy, tortured romance, fierce debate and melancholy drama…in 90 minutes.

This ambition is both Playing With Grown-Ups’ main asset and its downfall. With so many gripping, contentious, zeitgeist-y ideas on the table, plus an increasingly convoluted narrative, there simply isn’t enough time to do everything justice. Conversely, there are sections that feel slightly superfluous, which suggests some combination of tighter focus and/or extended running time would help the piece live up to its full potential.

Nevertheless, this is a largely dynamic play, slickly directed by Hannah Eidinow and elevated by a committed cast. Trudi Jackson doesn’t shy away from the waspish tongue and raw, escalating despair of new mother Jo, who dares to voice that having a baby is as much an act of destruction as creation, while Ben Caplan is a strong foil as oblivious husband Robert, eagerly engaging with everyone but Jo until there is no escaping their looming confrontation.

The spark for this escalation is the visit of old university friend, and Robert’s current boss, Jake (Shane Attwooll) and his latest youthful squeeze Stella (Daisy Hughes). The former serves as a reminder of Jo’s romantic past and a casual threat to Robert’s professional future, while the latter challenges Jo’s entrenched view of modern womanhood and the older characters’ weary pessimism. Unfortunately, Stella, the wise-beyond-her-years A Level student with daddy issues, is more catalyst than character; although a couple of uncomfortably mannered monologues hint at a complex hinterland, there is little evidence of it in her interactions.

However, the four archetypes are deployed in constantly surprising ways, setting maturity against innocence, male against female, vocation against parenthood, cynicism against empathy. This is most effective when the conflicts spring naturally from established emotional wells, underpinning the flurry of caustic exchanges with creeping pathos; less effective is the occasional foray into forced cliché. The strongest scenes abandon these quick-fire battles altogether, relying instead on broken frankness, simmering chemistry and the painful articulation of devastating truths.

If Patterson is searching for inspiration for her next play, she should look no further than this one. Several issues, here given short shrift, deserve deeper exploration, such as the monetisation of the arts, the legacy of education or the medical categorisation of emotional responses. Whether or not we can truly ‘have it all’ is unanswerable in 90 minutes, but Playing With Grown-Ups suggest she has the courage to take an original approach to such timely and emotive subjects.

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Reviewed 22/05/13/

By Marianka Swain

14th May – 8th June 2013
Theatre503, London, SW11.

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