Edinburgh Fringe 2009
This is a play about genetics and a woman’s obsession with having a "genius" child. This is a dark comedy built around the main, central character, Dora Blake, a librarian at the doomed library of Last Editions with a fear of being alone and unlook-after in old age. What she needs is a perfect child to look after her…
Welcome to a dark tale which uses comedy to explore the obsession of one woman, and succeeds in creating a "mad scientist" feel around the broader issues and consequences of genetics in society.
Dora Blake wants a baby who will grow up one day and look after her in her old age. To guarantee this she needs a child from someone near to perfection, with a little added tinkering from a scientist. I won’t spoil the story for you which is delivered with a strong comic punch through a combination of a very funny and effective central performance from Leah Milner, a strong supporting cast, and much playfulness with cardboard boxes, projection, puppetry and some physical comedy as well.
This could all have resulted in a comic mess. It hasn’t. The story emerges strongly, the writer is wise enough to allow the comedy to step back from time to time to allow the darker aspects of the story to emerge. Dora is both central character and also narrator, which keeps us in touch with the quick-paced narrative.
We jump here and there in time but don’t get lost. We learn something of genetics along the way. Milner plays a character older than herself, in a caricature style, but it works and juxtaposes well with some of the wackier antics of the piece. Her creation of Dora is top class in terms of character comedy. This central performance does have a tendency to overshadow the rest of the cast, and with the writing, often reminiscent of Victoria Wood, and Milner herself rather similar to Julia Walters, there’s a danger of this tending towards a one-woman show, in a way that Wood and Walters would write plays primarily as vessels for their own comic talents.
The use of the cardboard boxes is innovative and enjoyable to watch. I have a sense there is more that could have been done with them. At times they create the set and there needs to be more of them. At the moment it feels they are neither fully realised as a device nor plentiful enough to really be the set.
That said, A Stroke of Genius is fun, intelligent, performed at a very high level of quality, and hugely enjoyable. The writing is clever, structured playfully and boldly. The comedy mixes refreshingly well with the darker material. A gem of a show.