Review: My Mother Said I Never Should, St James Theatre

“I don’t know if you’ll ever love me as much as I love you but one day you’ll understand why I’ve done this to you”

It’s perhaps rather telling that a play that can claim the sobriquet “the most performed play by a female playwright” yet still be receiving its first London revival since its premiere here at the Royal Court in 1989. Fortunately, newly formed production company Tiny Fires are here to rectify that by mounting My Mother Said I Never Should at the St James Theatre (in its self-acknowledged first all-female production since opening three and half years ago – the clues are there…).

The fractured narrative of Charlotte Keatley’s play may not confound modern audiences more used to such theatrical playfulness but it was a novel enough concept that it was rejected several times by key theatres when first written. Which makes it all the more impressive that its structure still holds up beautifully today, complex without being confusing, as it takes its time to lay out all random pieces of a jigsaw which ultimately combine to tell the story of four generations of women from a single family from the North-West. 

From Doris born illegitimately in 1900 to a 16-year-old Rosie becoming politically active in the mid 80s, with Margaret and Jackie inbetween, Keatley explores not only the relationships between mothers and daughters but how our memories work, throwing up unexpected connections to the past and behaviour patterns that we never knew we’d retained, still less ever believed we’d repeat. And as the power of Paul Robinson’s production builds up, so too does its emotionally potent charge.

Signe Beckmann’s abstracted design instills a real elegance, even if Timothy Bird’s period video work may seem a little superfluous, in which the fluidity of time – indeed its complete removal in a set of ephemeral interludes of childhood play between young incarnations of all four characters – sits well under the cool gaze and sculpted shadows of Johanna Town’s lighting. And so we see the choices that these women have to make, about motherhood and careers, marriage and sacrifices, the insecurities that play on their minds, and the consequences of those decisions not just on themselves but on their loved ones, for the rest of their lives.

Maureen Lipman may seem an obvious choice for a cantankerous matriarch but she really is excellent here, whipping out withering remarks worthy of the Dowager herself but deeply empathetic when the time comes. Whilst Katie Brayben’s artistically-inclined Jackie grabs strongly at the liberation of the 70s with Serena Manteghi’s Rosie paying the price in a brace of powerfully moving performances. For me though, it was the raw angst of Caroline Faber’s Margaret that I found most affecting, touchingly but vainly fighting to keep an embittered soul at bay, even in the midst of such tangled familial love.

I don’t know about your mother, but my mother said London theatregoers should never have to wait this long again to see this powerful play revived, especially in as lucid and sensitive a production as this – from Tiny Fires comes big results.  

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Alex Harvey-Brown (Savannah Photographic)
Booking until 21st May

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