Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Motherland

Steve Gilroy
Live Theatre, Newcastle, production
Library Theatre, Manchester
(2009)

Production photo

Sat on or walking amongst neat little piles of ammunition boxes around the stage, which have the appearance of tiny suitcases in the half-light as the audience enters, sixteen women, played by four actors, talk about their experiences of having a son, daughter, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or brother join the army and leave them to go into a conflict zone. Some of these stories end with them coming home, some end with their death or injury, others do not end at all.

The stories are based on interviews with single women or groups of women, faithfully transcribed and reproduced according to the traditions of verbatim theatre down to such details as talking over one another, interruptions from a neighbour's dog barking and responses to the unheard shouts of a husband. The dialogue is delivered directly to the audience as though we are the interviewer, until halfway through the second half when some alternative modes of delivery are suddenly introduced – for no reason I could work out except perhaps fear of monotony on the part of the director – such as speaking into a microphone or wandering through the auditorium with the house lights up.

This structure does not – nor does it intend to – provide any kind of continuous narrative and is instead a series of anecdotes around the theme of temporary or permanent loss due to having a loved one in the military. Many of these pieces are very funny and some tell tragic stories that certainly tug at the heartstrings for a moment until that character is gone and we are now in someone else's story.

It is not, as writer-director Steve Gilroy claims it is in the programme, "a critical look at recent and current conflicts and their impact on communities" as there is no critical element to it; it is a series of overheard conversations about personal loss and only rarely do the characters mention specific issues relating to the conflicts themselves. He is right, however, to say "This text is a mere snapshot" or, more accurately, a snapshot album as it is a look on the surface without the depth or critical commentary available to a writer prepared to fictionalise the stories rather than simply reproduce and rearrange what he has been told.

There are some remarkable performances from the four young women in the cast – Rachel Adamson, Charlie Binns, Eleanor Clarke and Helen Embleton – who, between them, play sixteen characters aged between seventeen and sixty plus, subtly distinguishing between them so that it is almost not necessary to have the characters' names projected on the backdrop each time one appears. Their reproduction of the awkwardness of real speech is very clever and is actually funny when unexpectedly reproduced dramatically in such an accurate fashion, for some reason bringing to mind TV's animated Creature Comforts.

This is an entertaining, interesting and extremely well-performed piece, but it strangely dodges the issues it claims to deal with and exhibits the verbatim problem of only addressing what is said out loud while leaving the hidden nine-tenths of the iceberg that fiction can sometimes bring to the fore unexplored.

Peter Lathan reviewed the original 2007 production in Newcastle and Beth O'Brien reviewed this production at the Tristan Bates Theatre

Reviewer: David Chadderton