By Jane Cafarella. Ensemble Theatre. October 13 – November 13, 2016

The ancient and universal tragedy of infertility is given a modern spin, in this tale of two women, and the strange, forced bond they form over their joint quest to make a baby.

Catherine (Danielle Carter) is an uptight London lawyer, taut with desperation after 11 years and 18 unsuccessful rounds of IVF. Nellie (Gabrielle Scawthorne) is the young, naïve, American chosen to be her “gestational surrogate” – her last chance at motherhood.

It starts with jokes, hugs and excited optimism – much of it via Skype, email and phone-calls across the Atlantic.

The two women could not be more different, and there are plenty of laughs as the story starts on a hopeful note.

But as the journey through IVF and surrogacy enters troubled territory, each woman finds herself increasingly isolated. Ostracised by family, exhausted by medical procedures and hurt by the casual cruel comments of strangers, they start to turn against each other.

Danielle Carter plays control freak Catherine to brittle perfection. She runs the surrogacy project with the same steely determination with which she runs her corporate law practice, Fed Ex-ing her surrogate organic food from Harrod’s while barking instructions on pre-natal nutrition over the phone.

Gabrielle Scawthorne’s Nellie is equally impressive. Her mobile facial expressions lend her an endearing goofiness, and her comic timing is spot-on.

Both actors easily handle the transition to greater complexity. Catherine’s desperation cracks open her brittle façade and reveals a well of deep grief. Nellie, despite her sunny personality, shows herself to be also wilful, immature and stubborn.

There’s no suggestion this is anything other than a forced friendship, and faultlines appear before too long. Catherine becomes irritated with Nellie’s religious leanings, and her constant allusions to “God’s plan”; Nellie, for her part, resents the intrusive medical procedures and being badgered by Catherine about eating junk food.

As the power struggle continues, both women display their worst selves.

“I’m the one who’s carrying this baby!” shouts Nellie at one point.

“Yes. And I’m the one who’s paying,” replies Catherine coldly.

One unusual feature of this play is that much of it takes place on large screens above the stage, as the characters communicate via the Internet. Initially, I wondered if this technical aspect of the story would be a distraction. Within 60 seconds, I’d stopped noticing. It’s executed so simply that it seems entirely natural. In fact, the big screens add to the experience – even in an intimate theatre like the Ensemble, you rarely get so close to the actors.

Award-winning film director Nadia Tass has done a masterful job bringing a big human drama to a tiny stage, coaxing the audience into dark territory with humour and lightness, before cranking up the emotional intensity. One minute you're laughing, the next you have the uncomfortable feeling of watching someone in the most extreme emotional pain.

Women who have endured the agony of infertility and IVF often speak of the conflicting feelings they experience - elation, disappointment, joy, despair - sometimes from one minute to the next.

The cleverness of e-baby is in taking the audience – insofar as it’s possible – along a similar journey.

At times, e-babyis raw and harrowing, and the emotional highs and lows continue right to the end. The final scene is like being slapped in the face, then hugged. I left with tears in my eyes.

Juanita Phillips

Photographer: Clare Hawley

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