A quiz to start this review. Name as many female playwrights as you can in 10 seconds and then name one of the most often performed plays by a female playwright. I bet you didn’t get that many playwrights – it has been a man’s world for a long, long time – but hopefully you got the play which is Charlotte Keatley’s 1987 feminist classic My Mother Said I Never Should which is having a revival at the St James Theatre, Victoria.
My Mother Said I Never Should follows the story of four women in one family over the course of the 20th Century. At the head is Doris (Maureen Lipman). An illegitimate child herself, Doris always wanted to ensure that she did things correctly. To that end she got married young to Jack and the two of them thrived in Cheadle as they went through the depression and the Second World War with their only daughter Margaret (Caroline Faber). As Caroline grows up, she moves away from the family, down to London with her husband Ken where, in the fullness of time, they brought Jackie (Katie Brayben) into the world. Jackie was a child of the free-wheeling late 60s/early 70s and produced her own ‘love child’ Rosie (Serena Manteghi) who, for various reasons, Margaret takes in and brings up as her own with Rosie always believing Jackie is her big sister who hugs a little too hard. Going through to the mid 1980s we journey with these ladies as they follow the trials and tribulations of family life somehow staying together while being apart.
I have to confess that I was a little apprehensive at being asked to review My Mother Said I Never Should as I had a fear – not completely assuaged by reading the programme notes – that I was going to spend a long couple of hours being subjected to a vast tsunami of anti-men sentiment from this feminist classic. I couldn’t have been more wrong and once again, really learned a lesson about judging a book by its cover. The truth is that of the three men who were mentioned, one was a complete swine, one was someone who stuck by his duty however much he disliked it and the final one turned out to be a really nice guy. The interesting thing was that the women, were never nasty about the men, they just saw them for what they were and reacted accordingly. In fact, I have to admit I really did enjoy the play and was impressed with the story and the talking points that Charlotte Keatley brought out. For example, after the show I was discussing it with another reviewer and we both had different thoughts about the character of Jackie. I thought she came across as selfish from start to finish – even at the point where she was supposed to redeem herself – and I never really liked her, though I loved the way she was played. If I have one quibble with the story, it was the elements where the ladies appeared as children playing together. I had real trouble understanding those small scenes, but am prepared to admit it was probably just me.
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The non-linear progression of the story could have been confusing but, thanks to a wonderful device used by Set Designer Signe Beckmann, there was no chance of getting lost and there were enough clues in Paul Robinson’s sure-fingered direction to ensure everyone was keeping up. There was a brilliant scene which really got to me, when Jackie was getting ready to hand Rosie over to her mother. I’m not going to go into too many details but suffice to say that was a piece of scene setting and direction that was both highly moving and a masterclass in how to really grip and hold and audience.
Turning to the actors and, once more, I have a confession to make. Maureen Lipman is one of my favourite actresses and her elevation to Damehood is long overdue. She brings a real honesty to her portrayal of Doris and is the perfect Northern Matriarch, A dutiful wife in a sixty year marriage where the fire had either gone out or was down to its embers, Doris was always there for her child, grandchild and great-grandchild to turn to in times of stress. Offering her counsel but never really saying much about her own thoughts and feelings. Maureen got to deliver some wonderful lines, such as one of the best put-downs for modern art I’ve ever heard – “I like the flame, it’s gold, looks expensive” – with wonderful timing and a look that speaks volumes.
When the cast consists of only four members it is essential that everyone is perfect and in My Mother Said I Never Should they certainly are. All four actors bring their respective character to life brilliantly. In particular I’m going to single out Serena Manteghi’s Rosie whose enthusiasm and sheer energy could have got rather irritating to watch but she managed to keep it on the right side of endearing and, particularly in her scenes with Maureen Lipman’s Doris, Serena managed to forge a perfect familial relationship that seemed to bring the old girl up and inspire life into her tired old bones and body.
All told, whilst I had a few problems with a couple of scenes – and the title is way too long – My Mother Said I Never Should was a really compelling piece of theatre, with a truly fantastic cast, that had me completely spellbound. I left the theatre with two thoughts. Firstly, maybe I should go and see some more feminist plays, as I am obviously missing out on something and secondly, if there is a God of theatre, My Mother Said I Never Should would be heading further into town very soon.
Review by Terry Eastham
The most performed play by a female playwright.
“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.”
Keatley’s award-winning play is a moving exploration of the relationships between mothers and daughters and the consequences of breaking the most sacred taboo of motherhood. A play about the choices we make which determine the course of our lives and how it is never too late to change.Doris, born illegitimate in 1900, exchanges her budding teaching career for marriage and motherhood. When the war is over her daughter Margaret marries an American and has Jackie, who becomes an archetypal 60s rebel. When Jackie can’t face being a single mother, it is decided that baby Rosie will be brought up as Margaret’s own. That’s the plan anyway…
National treasure Maureen Lipman (Oklahoma, Outside Edge, See How They Run) and Olivier-award winning Katie Brayben (Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, King Charles III, American Psycho) will lead the cast in Charlotte Keatley’s My Mother Said I Never Should. They will be joined by Caroline Faber (The Taming of the Shrew, The Heiress, Hangover Square) and Serena Manteghi (The Railway Children). Presented by Tiny Fires Ltd. this is the first London revival of the play in over 25 years.
My Mother Said I Never Should Ticket Information
Show Opened: 13th April 2016
Booking Until: 21st May 2016
St James Theatre
12 Palace Street, London, SW1E 5JA