Focusing on four generations of a single family, Charlotte Keatley presents a story filled with hopes, struggles, womanhood and particularly motherhood. Throughout the play, the blend of each character’s timeline reveals more and more about their life’s constraints whilst touching upon real, social issues.
The story presents Doris, the eldest of the four, looking after her daughter Margaret during the air raids of World War Two, Margaret’s struggling relationship with her artistic daughter Jackie which creates a lifetime’s worth of bitterness, and Jackie’s teenage pregnancy with Rosie catalysing several consequences for all four of the women.
My Mother Said I Never Should is the most widely performed play written by a woman. Since its premiere in 1987 it has been produced in over 30 countries and garnered Keatley an Olivier Award nomination for most promising newcomer. London Classic Theatre produced the play in their first year of production and so this national tour eighteen years on is Artistic Director Michael Cabot’s second go at staging the acclaimed play. Cabot notes how “patterns of behaviour ripple down” the generations and this repetition of rebellious daughter against old-fashioned mother is captured perfectly by the company.
On the road since September 11th, it is of no surprise that the play runs smoothly, with effortless costume changes, prop alterations and proxemics by the four hard-working actresses on their final stop at York Theatre Royal.
For a play that is predominantly based in domestic settings in Manchester, London or Oldham, it is surprising to see a junkyard as the backdrop for the duration of the play. Despite the junkyard, or what Set Designer Bek Palmer describes as “the wasteland”, initially seeming an odd decision, the rusted and discarded backdrop ultimately pays off and the abstract space fits with each scene and the play as a whole. Like a good set should, the backdrop is not simply disregarded but becomes part of the performance. A car tyre becomes a swing, corrugated metal and wooden crates becomes a piano as well as simply being a wasteland for some parts.
The wasteland scenes which occur sporadically throughout seem slightly too obscure and cloud the continuity of the story. For someone with no prior knowledge of the play, the mixed timeline takes some concentration to follow, and it is difficult to digest meaning from these ethereal interludes.
However, the professionalism of the production is incredible whilst the acting and physical exertion required from the four cast members is to be admired. The stunning intensity from Connie Walker (Margaret) and Kathryn Ritchie (Jackie) at serious points of the performance is heart stopping whilst the relentless energy and innocence supplied by Felicity Houlbrokke as Rosie is fantastic. Despite all four actors impressively playing their character at different ages, Carole Dance (Doris) stands out. With nuanced alterations, Dance plays a child, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother whilst her comic timing and obsession with her lily of the valley gets some of the biggest laughs from the audience.
Revealing the raw side of social change throughout the 20th century, this version of My Mother Said I Never Should leaves audiences both amused and moved. As Keatley rightfully highlights, this play is not concerned with “women being super detectives or political heroines, but the less visible way in which women really can change society”. This is what Michael Cabot creates – a much-needed and extraordinary play about less-visible, ordinary women.