Mum by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm at Soho Theatre | Review

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s new play Mum confronts a crucial and urgent subject matter: the paucity of reasonable support for parenting infants. Exploring our society’s tendency simultaneously to deify and trivialise motherhood – whilst dehumanising mothers in the process – director Abigail Graham guides us through a literal and metaphorical nightmare triangulated by three women, Nina (Sophie Melville), Jackie (Cat Simmons) and Pearl (Denise Black) with an off-stage new-born boy at its centre.

Cat Simmons (Jackie) & Sophie Melville (Nina) in Mum by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. Photo by The Other Richard.
Cat Simmons (Jackie) & Sophie Melville (Nina) in Mum by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. Photo by The Other Richard.

Malcolm’s script wants to take on some big themes whilst also giving a personal story of the exhaustion and anxiety that attends maternity, which she does with several seafaring and swimming metaphors alongside a typical depiction of fatigue, disarray and perceived inadequacy. She also touches on the fact that every mother had a mother; exploring how it feels to be sandwiched between the care or loss of a parent whilst anticipating or nurturing a new child. Although these are all interesting questions, fundamentally the dramatic structure of Mum isn’t quite up to the task yet. Additionally, Graham’s direction has left some of the metaphors intact in the dialogue but eschewed them as visual imagery. As such, Mum is a well-performed but talky production that goes to the verge of credulity until it takes us home with a deus ex machina ending that rather undermines its own polemic.

The disorientation and trauma of the topsy-turvy world of birth and motherhood – and the degree of vulnerability to both women and babies that is seldom discussed or remedied – is full of dramatic potential. Clare Lizzimore’s 2017 off-Broadway play Animal, which starred Rebecca Hall, explored similar themes to Mum and also put a twist and mystery at its heart. However, Lizzimore’s script built a more consistent and credible (although highly theatrical) world in which the audience can invest its emotions. Malcolm creates a sympathetic and engaging central character in Nina whom Sophie Melville enacts with dazzling commitment and range; however, the Kafkaesque nightmare that unfolds starts to strain credulity. There is enough potential horror to explore and real pain to feel within Nina’s story that it’s not necessary to try to incite further outrage where even the absurdities of a deficient system and society don’t actually dwell. One starts to feel rather manipulated by rising complications (without wishing to offer spoilers, I am referring, for example, to an implausible court judgement that contradicts English law and other rapidly introduced and then explained-away plot points).

Whilst interesting, thought-provoking and conveyed by a fine cast, the play doesn’t feel fully formed. Malcolm needs to decide on a few of the themes she wishes to illuminate and commit to them (sacrificing the others) through the story whilst her director needs to bring all available theatrical muscle to these choices. Sarah Beaton’s set, with an enormous sea blue and green cot mobile under which the action takes place, swirls at a pace and grinds to a halt which, in conjunction with Sarah Ferguson’s lighting, offers blinding flashes, reflections and shadows. This design is clever and pleasing and, again, suggests potential for even greater visual imagery once the core of the story surfaces. The themes of Mum are too important to lean on implausibility or cliché. I’d very much like to see a second draft.

3 Star Review

Review by Mary Beer

Motherhood. No one can prepare you for it. No matter how much you tell yourself you can do it – can you? Where’s the rush of love? When will you sleep again?

What if the thing you fear most is also the thing you crave? All you wanted was one night of unbroken sleep, what have you done? Mum is a feverish journey through every parent’s worst nightmare.

Trigger Warnings:
Mum is a raw and real exploration of early motherhood. As such the play explore subjects that some audience members may wish to be aware of before arrival.

Information on these can be found below.
Includes occasional strong language and sensitive subject matter, including references to mental health issues, terminal illness, and the social care system.

Francesca Moody Productions, Soho Theatre and Theatre Royal Plymouth and Popcorn Group present
MUM
BY MORGAN LLOYD MALCOLM
Wed 20 Oct – Sat 20 Nov 2021 3.00pm, 7.30pm
https://sohotheatre.com/

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