The Theatreguide.London Review
Mother Said I Never Should
St James Theatre Spring 2016
Charlotte Keatley's 1989 play is a remarkable work, a drama that is sometimes awkward or overly schematic but still contains so much truth expressed with so much charity and warmth that it bypasses your critical senses to entertain, teach and inspire you.
It is a play by, for and about women that even men will find themselves embraced and enriched by.
A string of short scenes presented out of chronological order (so that director Paul Robinson and video designer Timothy Bird feel the need to post notices on a bank of TV screens to tell us where and when we are each time) eventually take shape as the story of four generations of women in the same family.
In 1940 Doris works to keep her daughter Margaret feeling safe in the air raids. In 1969 Margaret copes with her rebellious teenager Jackie, and a couple of years later Jackie, a teenage single mother, realises she cannot cope with her baby Rosie and gives her to Margaret, to grow up thinking Jackie is her big sister.
In 1987 a string of revealed truths and secrets test the bond of the four. (The never-seen husbands and lovers of each generation are either absent or irrelevant.)
Charlotte Keatley does not completely disguise the degree to which the women are characterised and their stories developed to provide a cross-section of female experiences – a bit like those American war movies in which every platoon had one guy from Brooklyn, one from Texas, and so on.
Nor does she totally avoid the easy shocks and sentiments of soap opera. But these ultimately do not matter.
My Mother Said absolutely convinces us of the bonds of love and of shared motherhood-daughterhood that unite these women.
It reminds us convincingly that female history is marked by different milestones and turning points from the ones men define their lives by. And it shows how generations within a family can create the village we are told it takes to raise a child.
For women in the audience it is a thrilling affirmation of their own experience, for men it is revelation.
Director Paul Robinson doesn't conquer all the structural problems – a string of punctuating scenes of children at their games is never really integrated into the play's reality, for example.
But he does create a strong sense of that reality and guide his actors to rich and evocative performances.
Maureen Lipman provides an unstrained emotional spine to the family and the narrative as the matriarch whose wisdom and support of the others is unobtrusive but always exactly what is needed.
Caroline Faber shows Margaret taking on the burdens of a working mother (in an unrewarding office job) and of surrogate mother to Rosie with a just-get-on-with-it spirit and finding fulfilment and happiness in those roles.
Katie Brayben holds our sympathy for Jackie even as she abandons responsibilities by convincing us that what seems to be the happiest and most selfish life of the four has an unbearable painful hole named Rosie at its centre.
And Serena Manteghi takes Rosie from carefree child through remarkably balanced and charitable adult while showing how much she owes, and realises she owes, to the three women who nourished and shaped her.
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