Writer: Charlotte Keatley
Director: Jeni Draper
It’s almost exactly a year since a touring production of My Mother Said I Never Should played Cast’s main auditorium. The continuing popularity of Charlotte Keatley’s challenging play means that a totally different production has come to Cast for two nights in the theatre’s Second Space.
Fingersmiths’ production was first staged at the Sheffield Crucible Studio late last year and in this touring version something of the spice seems missing: the cast is the same except for one part which is very capably filled, so it can’t be that. Perhaps it’s the fact that for the Studio run Sophia Lovell-Smith’s set seemed much more exciting when closely surrounded by audience. In a conventional end-on configuration, it’s still original and effective, but somehow that aggressively red slide seems less dominant.
Or perhaps the frisson at the boldness and cleverness of Fingersmiths’ narrative style is less at second viewing. Fingersmiths mix hearing and D/deaf actors in the cast, including a variety of degrees of deafness, and, with remarkable ingenuity, tell the story by ordinary spoken dialogue, projected titles, British Sign Language, mime and recorded dialogue matched to on-stage actors miming the conversation. Jeni Draper smartly keeps the audience on its toes by constantly varying the method: one moment we might be informed by three different methods, speech, titles and mime, then the next we are struggling with untitled BSL, understanding the scene through another character’s responses.
This is fascinating and presents BSL and mime as means of communication as valid as speech. At times, though, the attention is on the medium, not the message, and some scenes, with much miming, become rather slow. However, this helps the creation of a dream-like atmosphere in a play that constantly subverts expectation.
The story, told non-chronologically, deals with four generations of women in Manchester from the Blitz to the late 1980s when it was written, then suddenly reverts, in a moving final scene, to the early 1920s when Doris, the oldest of the four, had all her life and hopes before her. One of the themes of the preceding two hours has been disillusionment and the frustration of hopes and expectations. Alongside this it’s a study of mothers and daughters – the chaps are referred to quite often, but they’re a pretty uninteresting lot.
Doris, born illegitimate in 1900, is relentlessly aspirant, moving onward and upward through a materially successful marriage in which the love quickly fades, consoling herself with her fine house in Cheadle Hulme for the nullity of life. Her daughter Margaret survives her attempts to turn her into a little lady and, after her marriage to a dashing airman loses its sparkle and London proves to be just another place to work, becomes a workaholic. She also brings up her grand-daughter Rosie as her own – this is the great family secret – after her daughter Jackie, a talented art student, finds it impossible to cope as a single mother. A major cause of tension is between Margaret and Jackie, now a big success in the art world, for Rosie’s time and love.
Between the mostly short scenes set in specific years are strange, but evocative, interludes in the Wasteland where the four women, all presented as little girls, play and try to understand things – disturbingly the most popular game is “Let’s Kill Mother”.
Director Jeni Draper has taken over the demanding part of Margaret who changes and develops most of all the characters. She holds the play together and finds the humour, emotion and pathos of the part. Ali Briggs repeats her starchily snobby Doris, growing in understanding as the years pass, and Lisa Kelly, with a shorter time-span than the others – she’s still in her teens at the end – is as cute and lively (and sometimes irritating) as she should be. The most remarkable performance comes from E J Raymond who is profoundly deaf and creates Jackie as a force of nature, vividly miming and occasionally giving agonised voice in moments of desperation. It’s a pity that the actor voicing Jackie in the pre-recorded bits has been encouraged to adopt a demure and rather under-characterised delivery.
Runs until 27th February and then continues touring nationwide