Not often do I find myself stood in a rowdy pub on a Sunday night, surrounded by football fans and trying not to burst into tears. Nestled above the noisy crowd, Camden’s Etcetera Theatre provides the space for Fleet Productions’ impressive performance of ‘Baby Blues’.
Lily Kuenzler’s newly-written play deals with post-natal depression in a unique and touching way, exploring a couple’s struggle to cope in the ensuing months after a traumatic birth. ‘Baby Blues’ cleverly describes both Katie’s (Shannon Hayes) experience of depression, as well as the crudely-painted blue plastic baby she very unexpectedly gives birth to in the first scene, used as a metaphor for her despair.
This marriage of laughable absurdity and stirring emotion holds true for the play in its entirety. Seeing characters cradle and coo at a blue plastic doll is a bizarre sight, impossible to get accustomed to for the hour-length performance. It makes us laugh in parts, whilst also reinforcing the persistence of Katie’s depression at every point. One of the most poignant scenes begins cheerfully, as the audience laughs at the ridiculousness of seeing a woman pretend to love a doll. In this lies the brilliance of the production: we see what Katie sees. ‘Baby Blues’ capitalises on the natural hesitance of audiences to suspend their disbelief when props strain credulity, and uses this to provide a window into the experience of postnatal depression.
Also effective was the juxtaposition created between Katie’s withdrawal and the liveliness of the other characters. Keir Aitken and Farran Mitchell provided energy and humour as Katie’s husband and mother-in-law. At times the characters’ dialogue felt cliched, but this was made up for by scenes of genuine warmth, such as seeing the couple laugh whilst trying to dance together on stage. Well-crafted, these light-hearted moments of intimacy contrasted to darker scenes, in which we see a mother’s inability to bond with her child and the detrimental impact on her family. Katie’s struggles are portrayed incredibly by Hayes, whose performance is completely captivating. Moving seamlessly between outbursts of laughter and moments of stillness and despair, she never breaks the relationship forged with the audience, carrying the play through to its tragic conclusion.
Part of the significance of ‘Baby Blues’ is that we are given a character seemingly distant, or (at worst) dangerous, misunderstood by those on stage; nevertheless the audience are made to empathise with Katie, rooting for her and sympathising with her trauma, even up to the final scene. Kuenzler’s writing forces us to challenge our judgements of a mother whose actions at first seem unloving and cold, leaving us heartbroken at the fate of the characters and frustrated that a suffering mother does not receive the support that she desperately needs. Whilst the scenes at the start felt a little more flat, the show quickly picks up in pace and emotion and builds to a tense and heart-breaking finale, leaving the audience in tears as the house lights came back up.
Overall, ‘Baby Blues’ is at once gripping, entertaining and tragic. Whilst powerful and shocking, the dramatic climax perhaps takes away from an otherwise more nuanced portrayal of the realities of postnatal depression. Regardless, the play offers a poignant and thought-provoking testimony of the gravity of postnatal depression, and the need to take ‘baby blues’ seriously.