My Mother Said I Never Should

St James Theatre

Running until May 21st 2016

It’s the first time Charlotte Keatley’s play has been performed in London in 25 years, but this production of My Mother Said I Never Should, produced by Tiny Fires and running at St James Theatre, suggests that the capital has been waiting that long. It’s easy  to see why the National Theatre ranked it as one of the most significant plays of the twentieth century in 2000, and despite it being the most performed play ever written by a female playwright, Paul Robinson’s direction and Tara Finley’s production keeps it fresh.

The family drama spans 1940 to 1987 and four generations of women, and explores not only the personal dynamics at play, but those of society and its effect work, marriage and motherhood.

The plot is simple – we have Doris, born in Oldham in 1900, her daughter, Margaret who inherits some of her work and duty values but is some more freedom, her daughter, Jackie, who has an unplanned pregnancy in 1969, and hands her baby daughter, Rosie, to her mother to bring up as her own. But as all mother and daughter relationships, the reality is all the more complex. The ways in which they mirror one another, even whilst trying to break away, are clear, and we see repeated a longing to be different coexisting with a desire to connect.

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Of course things have changed and female freedoms extended and opportunities grown. There’s a sense of movement for the women – at one point Margaret says to Jackie ‘You’ve got to go further than me – otherwise, what’s it been worth?’ – but at the same time it’s very clear that much has stayed the same, particularly when it comes to the bonds and family dynamics. She herself made a similar assertion as young woman, declaring, ‘Well I’m going to be different! Women did so much during the war: there’s nothing stopping us now.’  Men are never physically present, but always casting a shadow, whether as husbands, fathers or bosses. However, rather than a play about women and men, this feels like more of a play about mothers and daughters.

Much of this is down to the convincing familial dynamics between the cast. Doris Lipman is superb as Maureen, showing grit, humour and strength of character even as she is constrained by conventions. Katie Brayben, Olivier Award winner last year for her performance as Carole King in Beautiful, plays Jackie, and manages to portray a wild child of the sixties to a mother parted from her daughter and the complexities of changing emotions and relationships. Serena Manteghi is vibrant and animated as the youngest character, and it’s touching to see her grow.  Huge congratulations and respect also has to go to Hilary Jones, who stepped in at the last moment to play Margaret due to Caroline Faber having to step down – this performance was the first configuration of the cast, and only the second time they had met.

Signe Beckman’s set design is sparse, with flickering television screens setting up the context of the time without overpowering the individual stories. Interspersed with movement through the decades are flashbacks, such as from Doris to 1923 when Jack proposed, and waste ground scenes where all four become children again, playing together and casting spells. There’s simple repeated motifs, such as the movement from ‘mummy’ to ‘mum’ to ‘mother’ to a first name, and the solitaire board that becomes a metaphor for winning at life by being an individual.

There’s no formula. The relationships between mother and daughter are delicate. Margaret says at one point that ‘You do what’s best for your daughter, and you find out it’s not what she wanted, or needed’ – a thought millions of mothers have had. But still the bond is there. The scene where the family sort Doris’ late husband’s house provides a particularly lovely lens through which to explore the relationships of the four women together.

Whilst watching My Mother Said I Never Should, I wished that my own mummy was there. I wanted to share the moments with her. This feels like high praise.

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