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Be My Baby

Amanda Whittington
Saisbury Playhouse
(2004)

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A worthy, conscience-stirring season continues at Salisbury Playhouse with Raz Shaw's production of Amanda Whittington's Be My Baby, a memory lane piece reminding us of the days of the mother and baby home.

Large numbers of local communities remained blissfully unaware of these fine institutions, often run by nuns, and, for very good reasons at the root of their existence, largely denied the public appreciation their excellent work merited.

In an era when society still shunned the single mother, few wished to hear of the mother and baby home, least of all parents who used it, apart that is, from clergy, health service representatives and local newspapers who picked up official annual reports of such charitable organisations.

The fact that Whittington's play was inspired by her own surprise at the discovery of these places, illustrates how completely our more liberal society has been able to banish the institution from its active memory. Indeed, younger members of today's Playhouse audience may still be wondering what on earth Be My Baby is on about - reformatory, punishment block, private clinic ?

It was, of course, none of those, rather a charitable response, led by the Church, to the plight of young women whose own families possessed neither the means nor the ability to come to terms with the consequences of a moment's indulgence.

Be My Baby would be even more powerful if its quasi-documentary approach were deepened and personalised. The mid-20th century Oliver Twist story just hasn't Dickens's impact on the emotions. It's no fault of Rebecca Callard, as Mary, principal victim in the story, nor Kellie Bright, her room-mate Queenie, that their characters don't quite make it into our hearts.

Raz Shaw, a name that is enough in itself to remind us of her work at the Royal Court Theatre, succeeds in breathing life into a play which is certain to benefit from a future reworking. In that process, perhaps Jamie Todd's clever design could be simplified.

Maggie Ollerenshaw (Matron) is a distinguished actor who began her career in the very city where I first learned of the mother and baby home. Perhaps that is partly why she alone brings a verisimilitude to her role. Even so, a convent setting might have heightened the atmosphere: the cross above the door alone does not achieve.

The production runs until 26 June.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole