St James Theatre, London – until 21 May 2016
Charlotte Keatley’s 1987 four-woman four-generation domestic drama My Mother Said I Never Should comes loaded with the sort of contradictions I dare not describe as female. It’s the ‘most-frequently-performed play written by a woman’, but the first London revival in 25 years. Yes, dear.
Maybe a lot of provincial church halls then, but the St James’s Theatre has upcycled it handsomely with clean monochrome staging by Signe Beckmann and Timothy Bird’s jerky period video on the stacked vintage tellyboxes which help identify time and place in a plot which otherwise hops frantically back and forth like a sparrow with the shits.
It’s the one where your mum’s your sister and your gran’s a bastard. I know, pick any EastEnders plot from the last thirty years but from the other end of the perspective grandmatriarch Doris (Maureen Lipman), shamed by her own illegitimacy gives up teaching for marital tedium. Disengaged from her dull daughter, disinherited by her husband she’s ultimately freed to a sunlit dotage by a great-granddaughter who has all of the seismic energy and none of the inhibitions from her own youth.
The title comes from a children’s chanting rhyme played out, in only slightly uncomfortable scenes, by the four actresses pretending to be tinies with the roles of dominance reversed so Lipman becomes the put-upon five year old fingered by her offspring in a game of Doctors and Nurses. If the technique feels familiar, either you went to drama school or you and Keatley both saw Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills in 1979.
This is a return to grand form for Lipman whose natural comic timing is best deployed undercutting the more strident statements and hinting at the unvoiced disappointments of marital life. She still needs a director brave enough to tell her that Manchester isn’t in the East Riding of Yorkshire and to drag her accent from native Hull to the other end of the M62, but it’s a finely detailed performance across a swathe of the century from tutoring piano lessons as a tetchy wartime martinet to the abandon of popping off her pop socks in an eighties Oldham garden.
She’s well matched by Caroline Faber and Katie Brayben as daughter and granddaughter whose spat in the second act is one of the strongest scenes, and a fractionally over-eager Serena Manteghi who carries Rosie convincingly from six to sixteen.
It’s a genuine surprise this play hasn’t been revived for so long. Be grateful it now has.
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