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Be My Baby

Amanda Whittington
Derby Theatre
(2011)

Be My Baby publicity image

The Swinging '60s was an era typified by a quest for freedom, free love and free thinking. But although attitudes changed more quickly than hippies changed their clothes, certain stigmas in society remained.

One of them was how people viewed single girls who became pregnant. In the middle of the decade there were 200,000 adoptions a year - and most of them were the offspring of young women who'd been discreetly sent away to mother-and-baby homes.

These were usually run by the Church. Girls went there to give birth, with the baby being taken away for adoption before the mother went back home as though nothing had happened and with her reputation intact.

This is the basis for Amanda Whittington's play Be My Baby which has grown in popularity since it was first staged in 1998. It's become a favourite with amateur groups and is studied in schools and colleges as well as being revived on a regular basis by professional theatres. That's because it's a well-written, humorous piece of social history which captures the mood of the time and introduces credible characters who earn sympathy.

I last saw Be My Baby at the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme three years ago. It was well acted and cleverly staged in the theatre-in-the round.

Yet Esther Richardson, a Derby LIVE artistic associate, has brought out different aspects in her stylish direction which I'd not noticed before. For instance, the girls in this mother-and-baby home are happily optimistic about their future. That makes the moment when their babies are taken away from them all the more poignant.

Be My Baby begins with 19-year-old Mary, an intelligent cashier at the Trustee Savings Bank, arriving at a home in the country. She's seven months pregnant and is carrying the baby of her boyfriend who's a medical student.

Her mother accompanies her to the home; her father doesn't even know about her condition.

It costs four guineas a week to stay at the home which is cut off from civilisation. Buses run infrequently and there's no Sunday service; visiting isn't encouraged.

Jessica Clark produces a creditable performance as Mary who reluctantly has to admit that being an unmarried mother with a child will work against her; she eventually has to face up to the fact that despite her intelligence and background, she'll lose her baby like all the other girls.

Michelle Tate as Mary's room mate Queenie skilfully gets the audience on her side with her rebellious attitude which masks the hurt as she recognises only too well the ordeal she's facing.

Emily Alexander also shines as Dolores, not very well educated and naïve about the ways of the world.

Jenny Hulse plays only a minor role in the early stages yet she almost takes top honours when her character Norma plummets to the edge of madness after her baby is taken away from her.

Tanya Myers is detached and practical as the stern matron, yet she drops her guard at the end and shows she's affected by every single birth.

Karen Drury gives a spirited performance as Mrs Adams, Mary's middle-class, nervy mother who can't accept that her daughter has made as big a mistake as the other girls in the home.

Hannah Clark's set adds to the enjoyment, moving quickly from the girls' bedroom to the laundry and the matron's office as '60s music accompanies the changes. There are times, though, when intimacy suffers on such a big stage.

This is an imaginative, classy production. Amanda Whittington must surely think Derby Theatre has taken good care of her baby.

"Be My Baby" runs until May 21st

Reviewer: Steve Orme