B for Baby

Michele Moran and Louis Lovett in 'B for Baby' by Carmel Winters. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Michele Moran and Louis Lovett in 'B for Baby' by Carmel Winters. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Michele Moran and Louis Lovett. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Michele Moran and Louis Lovett. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Special needs characters are a section of the population rarely featured in stage plays. They get their fair share of narrative action in films, with Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of autistic savant Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man springing immediately to mind. It’s a tricky kind of person to portray, yet one would think there would be immense value in choosing to dramatise the lives of those who live on the margins, to show us their lives, as we would be shown any other lives, for example, those of inner city drug dealers or South County Dublin Brown Thomas devotees. We would be given the opportunity see beyond said “special needs” and see them as human beings, not as a collection of behavioral tics that set them outside the norm.

On the other hand, what’s the point of taking a socially marginalized group and not making a play that has a definite thrust of social conscience, an “issues” play that exposes the challenges of living in a community that could be accused of pretending those special needs folks weren’t there at all? Some people are made uncomfortable by difference — how would it be to make an audience look at special needs characters for two hours and get them to open their minds, or reevaluate their assumptions?

Carmel Winters’ play, set primarily in a residential care home for adults with intellectual disabilities, falls uneasily between two stools. It is often subtle when more forceful choice is wanted, and eschews subtlety when a good dose of it wouldn’t go amiss. It presents us with a dangerous theme as the starting point of the drama, and then hamstrings itself at the end, unbelievably, in such a way that makes one wonder what the main premise was in the first place.

B (Louis Lovett) and Dee (Michele Moran) are the residents of the care home, and chat and bicker like an old married couple. They have their little idiosyncrasies — B pretends he’s a hairdresser, Dee is irascible to the point of bullying — and their conversation very quickly sets up the most interesting theme of the play: they talk about sex in the way that children do, but they are adults, and they are sexual beings. As ideas go, this is a good one, a gutsy one, an idea that is so potentially controversial, you almost can’t believe it is being put forth.

In a parallel narrative, Mrs C (Moran) and Brian (Lovett) actually are an old married couple, and their relentless bickering holds no charm. Mrs C is a relief care worker at B and Dee’s home, and Brian is a failed sperm donor. Although in her forties, Mrs C feels entitled give birth, and Brian has had it with the attempts. The relationship between the two is toxic: Mrs C is a self-absorbed harridan, Brian is an enraged victim, and their one-note interplay serves only to offset the apparent sweetness of the relationship between B and Mrs C.

Sweet? It’s abusive. This is the other incendiary theme that Winters tosses into the pot and lets boil away. The sexual and reproductive rights of the intellectually disabled is a hot topic, and only in recent times has it begun to be officially stated (by UN Convention) that people with special needs are actually in possession of human rights; that they are ‘subjects’, not ‘objects’; that there are fundamental freedoms to be enjoyed by all, no matter the physical or mental challenge. Mrs C seduces B, steals his sperm, and abandons him to make up stories about getting his Confirmation suit let out to wear at the wedding — and we are asked to see only the poignancy, and not to examine the harm.

Whether or not the sexual encounter was B’s choice as a human being with sexual rights, the situation was still furtive, and the initiator a person in power, and one really wishes that that theme had been the centrepiece of the play. It’s not, though, and the title of the piece gives away the main point: Mrs C falls pregnant, and B is left behind to play with his trains, and pretend to cut hair, and to possibly fall in love with Dee.

The staging - with its back-and-forth talking-heads scenes between B and Dee, Mrs C and B, and Brian and Mrs C - is static, although Sabine Dargent’s set adds a welcome whimsy. It’s this whimsy, however, that entirely guts the play, right at the end, with a sort of Bobby-Ewing-it-was-only-a-dream implementation that is surprising, but in the wrong direction. There was a chance here to portray special needs people as human beings in possession of humour, sexuality and imagination. In choosing to conclude that B and Dee had made the whole thing up, Winters takes every challenging and thought-provoking idea that had come before and makes it all pretend, and in so doing, robs her special characters of a truthfully human experience, fraught with pitfalls as it may have been.

Susan Conley is a writer and journalist.


  • Review
  • Theatre

B for Baby by Carmel Winters

30 September - 6 November 2010

Produced by Abbey Theatre
In The Peacock, Dublin

Directed by Mikel Murfi

Set and Costume design: Sabine Dargent

Lighting design: Paul Keogan

With Louis Lovett and Michele Moran