Writer: Morgan Lloyd Malcolm
Director: Abigail Graham
“I didn’t realise how tired it was possible to be without dying”, a familiar sentiment for all new mothers but for Nina in Morgan Lloyd’s Malcolm’s Mum, these words come back to haunt her when her ability to care for her son Ben is called into question. Premiering at the Soho Theatre, this 60-minute play retains its ambiguity as it explores any parent’s worst nightmare and a mum who just can’t cope.
Given a night-off from her three-month-old son, Nina has the chance to unwind at home with best friend Jackie where she can final confess how tough and relentless parenting has been. But a call from her mother-in-law changes everything and Nina is suddenly plunged into a world of hospital visits, social worker assessments and court appearances with the possibility she may never see her son again.
For a relatively short piece, there are a lot of strands to Lloyd Malcolm’s new play and what begins as a fairly straightforward drama in which realistic events happen sequentially, soon adopts a much broader range of techniques as the writer introduces flashback sequences that take the viewer to various points in Nina’s pregnancy, as well as scenes that suck the audience into Nina’s distracted interior life where reality fades into the background.
And Mum is all the more powerful for it, leaving the audience to wonder not only whether it was Nina, her unseen husband or mother-in-law Pearl who hurt Ben but how faceless the process of prosecution can be. As the months roll by and as Nina becomes ever more frantic at the long absence from her tiny baby, the very idea of truth, evidence and the ability to draw concrete conclusions seem increasingly nebulous concepts as the slow pace of ‘the system’ works against the people within it.
In Nina, Lloyd Malcolm distils the fears of many parents as she worries about whether she’s providing the right kind of care, but there is also a loss of self that the immersive first months of parenthood inevitably bring. Yet, these are amplified to the point where Nina’s credulity and even her mental health are called into question, and Mum smartly leaves the audience to make their own assumptions about the complex picture the central character creates and how connected her struggles and Ben’s injuries really are.
Sophie Melville bristles with compacted energy as Nina, tense and edgy from the start and only becoming harder to read as she completely loses control. It’s a difficult line to tread between sympathetic and potentially monstrous, but Melville makes the audience believe that the sarcastic Nina just might be capable of something terrible despite herself while, at the same time, knowing that she’s just an exhausted mother devoted to the welfare of her child.
Denise Black plays both sweetly vicious mother-in-law Pearl, who couldn’t be more helpful until something goes wrong when she becomes the first to cast aspersions, and Nina’s dying mother whose lack of maternal instinct becomes vital to understanding her daughter. Cat Simmons brings gravitas as friend Jackie who must chose between being a supportive friend and an NHS professional putting the child’s needs first.
“I didn’t know I could love and hate so fully with my whole being” Nina admits but in providing a tidy and somewhat trite conclusion Mum loses a little of the intensity it has so carefully built, not quite deciding if its final message is about post-natal mental health or the social system stacked against parents and losing that final scene would be more dramatically satisfying. Lloyd Malcolm’s play isn’t an easy watch, but it is a powerful one.
Runs until 20 November 2021