Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Little Baby Nothing

Catherine Johnson
Bush Theatre
(2003)

Little Baby Nothing is El, a rather confused 14 year-old who, together with her friends Erin and Joby' is at that stage of adolescence that is a mixture of remarkable immaturity and impending adult responsibility. As Erin puts it, "Fifteen's weird innit? Fourteen's like you can still be a kid and get away with it and sixteen's grown up, but fifteen..."

Catherine Johnson has written a wonderful play about the pains of adolescence and also of being the single mother of a growing girl. Her last two shows, Shang-A-Lang and Mamma Mia were named after hits by the Bay City Rollers and Abba. Following the trend, Little Baby Nothing was a rather more minor hit for the Manic Street Preachers. One of the strengths of this show is the clever use of pop music between scenes to add extra depth to the action.

This production has much going for it. A cast including three youngsters who have hardly any professional experience, supplemented by two more mature actors, is superbly directed by Mike Bradwell. He has the benefit of a well-constructed set consisting of a Bristol roof terrace designed by Jonathan Fensom, complete with working cement mixer.

The play is set around three set-pieces, the 15th birthdays of the youngsters. The first to get there is the slightly backward, bulimic, self-mutilating Erin - a witty performance from Jenny Platt. At her party, she gets two unforgettable presents. A birthday candle that Joby does not put on a cake and a ouija board. The seance that El's mother Anna leads starts off as a bit of fun but where it eventually gets to is truly frightening.

Joby, a mixture of grinning brashness and youthful self doubt, well depicted by Tom Daplyn, takes the occult a step further at his birthday party. The consequences are even worse than those at Erin's and the audience is left worrying through the interval almost as much as poor widowed Anna and her devoted "slave", an unlikely lover, Craig, played with self-deprecating humour by Jem Wall. Craig is not really Anna's style. As she points out so cruelly, he is nice which for her is a real turn-off.

The final birthday is El's own. Inevitably, this one get out of hand too but this time the problems are definitively terrestrial. Stage debutante Alice O'Connell makes a good fist of the belligerence of a teenager in the face of her trendy mother. She also shows the uncertainty and need for love of the daughter of a single mother whose father died of a drugs overdose when she was a small child. The relationship between mother and daughter is fascinating and, on occasion, the child is mother to the woman to paraphrase Hopkins (badly).

Perhaps the best performance of all comes from the very busy Suzan Sylvester as Anna. Having had a couple of hits at the Royal Court, Miss Sylvester now finds yet another at the Bush, managing to derive great sympathy from the character of a bad mother. Anna may drink and swear but she cares deeply for El and ultimately it is circumstances that make her neglectful.

Catherine Johnson is currently riding the crests of two separate waves of success. Her smash-hit musical, Mamma Mia is doing well in several countries and her TV series How to have Sex in the 21st Century has proved popular on Channel 4.

Little Baby Nothing deserves to do at least as well. Miss Johnson captures the joys and pains of motherhood well and has a great gift for dialogue. Perhaps her real achievement is to flesh out three teenagers and make them absolutely convincing. She also gives us many barrels full of laughs along the way as she demonstrates that being a teenager or even a teen's mother can be a haunting experience.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher