Out in an abandoned back alley, four girls play in the muck. They inhabit different eras across the twentieth century but through the gap in a wire fence they’re born again into a timeless no-man’s land as their childhood selves. This is the wasteground of Charlotte Keatley’s play, an abstract and non-linear setting where all four characters can see themselves as equals. Their camaraderie is discarded here, forgotten in the main action of the play which pits women against one another.
The sense of conflict lives among the bric a brac nature of Bek Palmer’s terrific set. The series of ramshackle pieces making up a home evoke a Steptoe and Son vibe, a rag and bone built home which similarly houses a warring parent-child dynamic over the years. By making treasures of the junk, we see how easily one woman’s piano is another’s hunk of corrugated iron and wood: the sides of each generation’s tug-of-war are clearly defined.
It’s in rejecting filial obligation that Margaret (Connie Walker) and Jackie (Kathryn Ritchie) leave their maternal homes. That sense of frustrated escapism hangs over the show, though in turn the audience feed some of that frustration back. This is owing to the slow and plodding nature of this production, particularly among those discussed wasteground sequences. The ensemble’s deliberate attention to acting childishly grates rather awkwardly on all performances except Felicity Houlbrooke’s (we do not see her Rosie age beyond sixteen by the end of the play).
The choice to use the same actors as their childhood selves holds back Walker’s otherwise stellar turn as Margaret. Perhaps the least likable of Keatley’s characters, it’s an even greater feat that Walker shows us her softer side. A reference to an affair or a lost child shines through, no matter how brief. It’s dampened by Keatley’s tendency to spell out the plot points in a way which feels distractingly on the nose in contemporary drama where we have a wealth of subtleties to feast on. (It does seem strange that director Michael Cabot’s chosen to re-stage My Mother Said, hailing the female relationships in a show which punishes its women for taking steps toward independence. Maybe this is lost on the company for lack of comparison: since 2000 London Classic Theatre has only staged five plays written by women, of which two productions are My Mother Said.)
For all of Walker’s finely tuned understanding of Margaret’s desires unfulfilled, her final appearance feels marred by the staging choice. Placing Margaret in the wire fence entrance, she remains beyond our focus: whether it’s a decision to symbolise her passing into another world, or a window into her mind, the physical view shows Margaret cut off, segmented. She’s no longer relevant to the drama.
Ritchie as Jackie is given the bulk of the emotional heavy lifting when it comes to the show. Forced to watch her daughter raised by her own parents, Ritchie can fill her eyes to the brim with anguish in a silent moment. She can’t match that same wealth of performance in a louder outburst: given a monologue during one of the most vital scenes, Ritchie doesn’t give enough of a build up in volume or anger to sustain her momentary bursts of intensity. The performance is all too staccato to reflect a longer-lived grief.
That’s the issue across the board here: whether through Keatley’s now outdated script or Cabot’s sense of drawing out the sequences, the overall show feels inconsistent with regards to its characters. Too much emphasis is placed on the bombshells of the piece, not the women dropping them. 2/5
Review written by Louise Jones.
My Mother Said was shown from Tuesday 20th until Saturday 24th November 2018 at the York Theatre Royal.