My Mother Said I Never Should – Richmond Theatre, London

Writer: Charlotte Keatley

Director: Michael Cabot

Reviewer: Alex Ramon

In State of the Nation, his comprehensive study of post-war British theatre, Michael Billington places Charlotte Keatley’s My Mother Said I Never Should among the mere “handful” of new plays that made an impact in the 1980s. Keatley’s play has endured beyond that decade, too: in fact, it’s the most frequently performed work by a female playwright worldwide. It’s not hard to see the drama’s appeal: My Mother Said I NeverShouldoffers a distilled yet subtly expansive look at British women’s lives across the 20th century, one that’s warm, sad and funny, accessible yet idiosyncratic enough, and that stirs many shocks of recognition in audiences due to the observation and humanity of the writing.

Sensitively directed by Michael Cabot, London Classic Theatre’s new touring production does justice to Keatley’s play. With a set by Bek Palmer that keeps ever-present “the Wasteground” on which its four characters are first introduced to us – a timeless space of girlhood play and imagination that takes on more poetic and even unsettling resonances as the drama develops – the production skilfully and unobtrusively negotiates the temporal shifts of the piece.

“Kitchen sink” realism is both embraced and subverted as a family history centred on four generations of women gradually unfolds and turns back on itself, concealing and disclosing family secrets. Oldham-born Doris, a teacher, marries in 1924, and gives birth to Margaret, giving up her career to become a dedicated wife and mother. Margaret decides she wants a different fate, but her marriage to an American, Ken, doesn’t exactly provide the freedom she’d wished for. Her hopes are transferred to her daughter, Jackie, who becomes a prominent figure in the art world, but not without making a sacrifice regarding her own daughter Rosie – leading to a deception that has repercussions for all concerned.

Keatley’s play is direct in its focus on generational conflict and its examination of the expectations that mothers have for their daughters, and how those can lead to tension and disappointment. But these issues are explored unpretentiously, through a close focus on the texture of everyday experiences – Formica, Kendal Mint Cake and all – that grounds the drama, while never becoming banal. The sadnesses and pleasures of working- and middle-class life are presented with neither condescension nor sanctity here. (A line about a polytechnic gets a laugh, but that probably says more about the Richmond audience than the tone of the writing itself.)

The cast – Judith Paris as Doris, Lisa Burrows as Margaret, Kathryn Ritchie as Jackie and Rebecca Birch as Rosie – work together well, with Paris particularly glorious as she shows the family matriarch loosening up with the years. At one point Doris criticises documentaries for not providing accurate portraits of how certain things were in the past.

The great pleasure – and subversiveness – of My Mother Said I Never Should is the shrewd and warm-hearted way in which it challenges such inaccuracies via its loving commitment to putting the struggles, joys and compromises of “ordinary” women’s lives on stage.

Runs until 2 March 2019 | Image: Sheila Burnett

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