Writer: Charlotte Keatley
Director: Michael Cabot
Set and Costumes: Bek Palmer
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
My Mother Said I Never Should, first staged in Manchester in 1987, is the most widely performed play by a female dramatist – rather surprising for a play that poses challenges for producer, cast and audience alike. However, its subject matter and themes have a wide-ranging appeal that involves an audience, even one struggling to sort out the complex chronology.
The play deals with four generations of women; the menfolk, a pretty unimpressive lot, are never seen, though in some cases much talked about. The themes of cross-generational links, inter-generational conflict, hopes disappointed and resentments concealed resonate with most of us.
Doris, born in 1900, comes up in the world from Oldham to Cheadle Hulme, but is locked in a loveless marriage. Her daughter, Margaret, marries and departs optimistically to a new life in London, but finds more drudgery than delight. In turn, her daughter, Jackie, at art school in Manchester, falls pregnant to a married man and gives up the baby to Margaret who raises her as her own. Rosie, still a teenager at the time of the final action in the play (1987), is brought up in ignorance of her real mother.
Apart from scenes in identifiable locations, the play sets the tone by impressionistic scenes in The Wasteland in which all four characters are aged between 5 and 9 and disprove thoroughly the idea that little girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice. Their first game is “Let’s kill Mummy” and much of their conversation is of birth and death. The Wasteground scenes break up a series of events presented non-chronologically, especially in Act 1 where thought processes and thematic links dictate the order. The fairly short Act 2 is more naturalistic, occurring on the day in 1982 when all four arrive at Doris’ Cheadle Hulme home to prepare for her departure and return to Oldham after her husband’s death. Act 3 restores the format of a couple of visits to the Wasteland in between short place-specific scenes, but these scenes now present a coherent narrative of events in 1987, except for the master-stroke of a final scene set in 1923, right at the beginning of it all.
Michael Cabot’s production for London Classic Theatre trusts the audience to follow the twists of time and place, setting the whole play in the Wasteland, with the other scenes sometimes borrowing furniture or props (most strikingly, a grand piano) from the piles of scrap in Bek Palmer’s imaginatively cluttered set. Costumes become a vital guide to the period of the events and the age of the characters.
Though there is a certain amount of adults-playing-children unease, generally the four actors project the changes in age, situation, and attitude effectively. Kathryn Ritchie, the only cast member remaining from the Autumn tour of the same production, is excellent, the physical tension she conveys as a young mother giving up her child never quite leaving her as she progresses (apparently selfishly) to a successful artist and world traveler. Judith Paris is affecting as Doris realises there is more to life than social aspirations and making sure no one damages the lilies of the valley. Rebecca Birch’s lively and wilful Rosie grows into the maturity of her final scene with her great-grandmother. As Margaret Lisa Burrows capably charts probably the most difficult set of transformations without fully involving us in the character’s emotional life.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed