My Mother Said I Never Should
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
One of the great success stories of modern British theatre, Charlotte Keatley's award-winning My Mother Said... was premiered in 1987 and has since been translated into 22 languages. Eighteen years later the play, although very much of its era, never comes across as a period piece; under the direction of Sarah Punshon this story of mother/daughter relationships, played out against the backdrop of women's emancipation, is as touching and funny as ever.
Doris Partington (Deirdre Doone), born illegitimate in 1900, abandons her promising teaching career for marriage and motherhood in 1924. After the war her daughter Margaret (Janice McKenzie) marries an American and becomes the mother of Jackie (Sukie Smith), an archetypal 60s rebel. When Jackie falls pregnant whilst at university and is unable to cope with life as a single mother, she and Margaret decide that young Rosie (Katie Wimpenny) will be brought up as Margaret's own daughter and not told the truth about her parentage until her sixteenth birthday. Needless to say, all does not go to plan; Margaret's untimely death brings the secret out into the open too soon, and instead of the hoped-for mother and child reunion Rosie chooses to live with her great-grandmother.
A bald plot summary cannot do justice to the play's non-linear structure, which weaves backwards and forwards over sixty eventful years. We see the characters at various stages of their lives, and also as unrelated children playing at doctors and nurses and threatening to kill their mums with magic spells. The sight of an adult actor playing a child can be horribly embarrassing, but all four members of the cast pull off this difficult feat with aplomb. Katie Wimpenny ages from six to sixteen with complete conviction and Deirdre Doone is equally endearing as a thumb-sucking toddler and an elderly matriarch (she also has some of the best lines in the play - "I may be as old as the Queen Mother but I buy all my smalls at Top Shop," she tells Rosie). Sukie Smith makes Jackie's transformation from hippie to successful art dealer entirely credible, and Janice McKenzie's Margaret - born late enough to escape her mother's narrow life but too soon to benefit from the social upheavals of the 60s - is a deeply moving creation.
Sarah Punshon's decision to take advantage of the Courtyard Theatre's versatility and stage the play in the round was an inspired one. Although, inevitably, some of the dialogue is not as clear as it might be, we really do feel that we are not so much watching as eavesdropping on a family drama. Adam Wiltshire's set, a thick platform irresistibly reminiscent of a Vienetta ice cream, comes into its own as layers are stripped off to reveal grass, a parquet floor and a paved garden. Popular music ranging from Glen Miller to punk, together with Mic Pool's eerie soundscape, adds the finishing touch to a fine revival of a great modern play.
At the Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until 29th October
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson