’Night, Mother – Hampstead Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Marsha Norman

Director: Roxana Silbert

On the face of it, mother and daughter Thelma and Jessie have a comfortable life. Their country house, somewhere in the US South, is remote enough to offer privacy and quiet, but close enough for friends and family to be in easy reach.

But that isolation comes into sharp focus when Jessie (Rebecca Night), who has been busy sorting out the house and making lists, calmly announces to her mother the reason for putting it all in order: she is going to kill herself, and has planned everything.

Marsha Norman’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which received its European premiere at the Hampstead two years later, disguises its power early. The matter-of-factness of Jessie’s decision, playing against Thelma’s aghast disbelief, plays out in blackly comic real time.

But as Thelma (a beguiling Stockard Channing) comes to realise her daughter is serious about her intended course of action, she tries to find a cause in Jessie’s life. Was it missing her dead father, with whom Jessie had a stronger relationship than her mother ever did? Maybe it was her ex-husband, or her criminal son, or her lifetime battling with epilepsy.

In the back and forth between the pair, Night’s Jessie bats away easy answers. Most emphatically, she decries the notion that her decision is one made of unsound mind: on the contrary, she says, her physical and mental health have been clear for a year, and that has granted her the vision to see when it is time for her to leave.

The rational presentation of what we cannot help but think of as an irrational act lies at the heart of Norman’s writing, just as it drives the powerful conversations between mother and daughter as they confront issues that, until now, they had rarely talked about.

Of the pair of actors, Channing is the stand out here, a nice mother but not a particularly maternal one to Night’s intense Jessie. The play’s 80-minute running time moves at a lick, doing well to avoid extraneous exposition: the pair’s relationship to unnamed family and friends emerge slowly, in natural conversation, forcing us to fill in the gaps as we eavesdrop on thirty-plus years of shared experience.

But it is neither Jessie’s intended act, nor her active choice of it, which is the true focus of Norman’s play: rather, it is the lack of anything with which Thelma can counteract her daughter’s logic. The portrait of the mother-daughter relationship is a powerful one, especially when Night’s Jessie perfunctorily declares that she is not Thelma’s daughter, but “what became of your child.”

One holds one’s breath near the end of this compelling piece, hoping for a happy ending despite the chance ever receding. And when the exhale comes, a lump in the throat remains.

Continues until 4 December 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Compelling suicide drama

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