Be My Baby
Gala Theatre, Durham
"The past," L P Hartley tells us in the opening of The Go-Between, "is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
How shocking it is to remember - or, rather, to have revealed to you - the foreignness of your own past! In 1964 I was at University; it was less than two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis when we all believed that a nuclear war was inevitable and the sense of relief when the threat was lifted was almost euphoric; it was the year after the assassination of JFK; it was the start of the "Swinging Sixties" , the era of peace and love. That's what I remember.
What I don't remember is that it was the age in which "bad girls", who fell pregnant out of wedlock, were hidden away from public (and family) sight in homes run by charities and churches and their babies were taken from them for adoption immediately after birth, without their even having the chance to hold the child. I don't remember that because, of course, it didn't impinge on my life. But I do remember my parents talking about how important a girl's "reputation" was: no man, they said, would ever want to marry a girl whose reputation had been destroyed (i.e. she had slept with a man whilst unmarried).
Amanda Whittington's 1998 play reminds us of that time as we follow the stories of four of these "bad girls" - Mary, Dolores, Norma and Queenie in one of these "homes", presided over by the on-the-surface scary but underneath sympathetic and kind-hearted Matron. Obsessed by pop music (and, in particular, Dusty Springfield) and, in spite of their "bad girl" status, they are essentially innocents: even Queenie, who has more of a "past" than the others, is, at heart, an innocent.
On Sarah Oxley's effective composite set, the cast of six play out the sad story. Sad it is, but it never quite reaches harrowing, which parts of it should. Partially this is the fault of the script but this production is too slow in places, particularly in the changes of scene. At times a scene ends on an emotional climax but the slow change to the next tends to dissipate the tension, which the actors then have to build up again. It's hard to say whether this is due to Simon Stallworthy's direction or to the fact that, the press night being also the first night, the changes have not yet become practised enough. Or perhaps it's both.
It's a fine cast: the characters of the four girls - Mary (Victoria Holmes), Dolores (Donna Griffin), Norma (Samantha Morris) and Queenie (Danielle Williams) - are well differentiated (and convincing) both in the writing and the playing, and Beatrice Comins (Mrs Adams, Mary's mother) and Sian Murray (Matron) catch all the subtleties of characaters which could easily become stereotypical under less careful direction and less sensitive playing.
The production recreates the early sixties atmosphere well. And foreign it is - to see a nineteen year old spoken of (and treated as) a child is a sharp reminder of how much things have changed in the intervening 45 years - but we are drawn into this world and we really do care about these people who are at the mercy of a set of attitudes which they feel to be not merely wrong but cruel.
"Be My Baby" runs until 27th June
Reviewer: Peter Lathan