Writer: Charlotte Keatley
Director: Paul Robinson
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
A century of enfranchisement and emancipation has altered the role of women in our society irreversibly. Charlotte Keatley’s family drama, written in the late 1980s, surveys nine decades and four generations of women to examine how the challenges of balancing work, marriage and motherhood have been affected by change. The production company Tiny Fires is giving the play its first London production for over 25 years.
Doris, born in 1900 to an unmarried mother, is instilled with a sense of dutiful subservience and self-sacrifice. Her only daughter, Margaret inherits some of those values but is freer to build a career of her own, Margaret’s daughter, Jackie, takes liberation a stage further, but, after an unplanned pregnancy in 1969, she hands her baby daughter, Rosie, to her mother to bring up as her own.
Set mainly in Manchester, the play begins with the four actors as schoolgirls tripping around a playground, innocently planning to kill their mothers. It is a trick start to a drama in which the bonds between mother and daughter provide a central theme. Keatley tells the first part of her story in non-linear form, giving a feeling of timelessness and agelessness that works perfectly in establishing her characters and the historical backdrop to their lives.
The women often talk about their men, but none of them appears in the play. A bare bones outline of the plot suggests something similar to a soap opera, much of it predictable, but the risk of the drama becoming risibly sentimental is avoided deftly through well-crafted writing and even the most obvious contrivances are made believable by a quartet of superb performances,.
Maureen Lipman can rarely have been more moving than she is here as Doris. At various points a playful schoolgirl, a young woman overjoyed at her engagement, an apron-clad wartime housewife and an octogenarian matriarch, she makes Doris more than just a victim of her times. This is a woman with the strength of character to fight for succeeding generations to do progressively better and to overcome resentment at the lack of opportunities for her to make more of her own life.
There is an outer frostiness to the resolute Doris’s relationship with Caroline Faber’s stoical Margaret, but the actors bring out the inner warmth between them. A wartime childhood and post-War austerity have given Margaret a work ethic that spurs her to take on both a full-time job and motherhood, but, with career opportunities for women now opening up, she feels pressures on her marriage that would have been unthinkable to her mother’s generation.
Katie Brayben, Olivier Award winner last year for her performance as Carole King in Beautiful…, is equally impressive as Jackie, moving from rebellious wild child of the Swinging Sixties to affluent yuppy of the Thatcher years. The pain of her separation from Serena Manteghi’s bubbly and optimistic Rosie is so real that it can almost be touched.
Paul Robinson’s sensitive production loses momentum only occasionally but, at well over 150 minutes (with interval) it is perhaps a tad too long. Signe Beckmann’s set design has television sets from different eras banked up and showing news footage to establish the year of a scene. Otherwise, only improvised furniture and props are used and Johanna Town’s very effective lighting indicates changes of location and mood.
Notwithstanding the epic sweep of its themes, it is often in the small details that the play excels. When Rosie gets more pleasure from conquering her great grandmother’s Solitaire board than from music coming through her immovable headphones, Keatley is showing us continuity across generations and signalling that, in a whirlwind of constant change, so much stays the same.
Runs until 21 May 2016 | Image:Alex Harvey-Brown