First, a word of warning. My three stars are awarded principally because of the social and historical interest of this play from 1951. At that time, in the middle classes at least, it was generally thought shocking and disgraceful for a woman to have a child out of wedlock.
Disgrace was only the first of such women’s difficulties. With no husband or father present to pay the bills, they had to find paid employment. Hence they also had to find someone to look after their disgraceful offspring. The people who did this did it purely for money. In general, like society at large, they despised their clients. And, it frequently came to pass; their true clients were not the mothers of the children they sheltered, but other, married women who were infertile, hovering in the wings ready to buy their way out of their difficulty.
This trade was known as ‘baby farming’.
Rayman’s play charts the appalled awaking to consciousness of her true situation of a well brought up young lady, who expects the father of her child to come back from America with a job which will make them happy ever after.
Broadly, the cast is divided into three elements. One is the unfortunate mothers. The second is the put-upon staff of the hostel, to an extent divided in their response to the morality of what they are helping to do. The third is the single figure of the proprietor, Helen, a twisted, contemptuous and unhappy woman who takes out her various malaises on her victims. Sally Mortemore seizes her chances in this almost larger than life role with understandable energy.
Some of her victims also have interesting catastrophes to deal with, but for all that, the first act consists of encounters between them and Helen, which Helen inevitably wins. She is the boss. Her victims have nowhere else to hide.
Inevitably there is a certain monotony of subject matter and pace in the dialogues. The absence of male actually on stages is perhaps a drawback in this respect, although it is of course accurate reporting. The second act works more variously because the conflict that has been simmering comes briefly to the boil. Even I (who was actually alive in 1951!) was shocked and appalled by the spectacle of woman’s inhumanity to woman and the simplistic notions of morality that supported the legitimacy of what was going on.
Jonathan Rigby, the director, writes a perceptive programme note about his reasons for wanting to revive this play from the ’Fifties (which, made into a film, achieved the distinction of being the first British movie to be accorded the newly established ‘X’ certificate). As a play, he thinks, it anticipated the kitchen sink school of drama usually supposed to have begun in 1956.
In my view, however, the plays and films that later embodied that style of drama had more theatrical know-how, variation of pace and theatricality. But I agree that the existence of this one should be known.
Now, briefly, is your chance.
- By Sylvia Rayman
- Directed by Jonathan Rigby
- Cast includes: Sally Mortemore, Elizabeth Donnelly, Vanessa Russell & Ailsa Ilott
- Pleasance Theatre, London
- Until 27th April 2014
- Time: 19.30
- Review by Tom Aitken
- 16 April 2014