St James Theatre, London – until 21 May 2016
SIXTY YEARS, FOUR GENERATIONS: WHAT THE WOMEN DID
Say, first of all, that Maureen Lipman was born to play Doris, the Lancashire matriarch at the heart of Charlotte Keatley’s modern classic. In this revival she never misses a beat: without overdoing it Lipman can convulse an audience with a mere word (“Polytechnic” “End Terrace” ), or silence our breathing with a wrenching, gentle monologue expressing a hidden life.
She carries Doris through: first a 1940’s housewife born illegitimate in 1900 in “reduced circumstances’ , becoming a mildly disappointed, undemonstrative no-nonsense mother. Then a mellower grandmother, holding family secrets; finally a fearless widowed octogenarian taking evening classes, kicking off her pop-socks in the sun, finally at ease. At times she is also required to be her five-year-old self, playing in a wasteground the farouche, unsupervised games of an earlier age when Doctors and Nurses stood in for sexual exploration. In every manifestation Lipman nails it.
The play tracks four generations of women from the war to 1985: Doris mothers Margaret, who grows up as a career woman (though her final promotion is to be PA to a young male graduate with dodgier grammar). Margaret’s daughter Jackie is a sixties kid, has baby Rosie by a married man, can’t keep her and lets Margaret take over while, in the shameful primness of that age, she plays big-sister and becomes a glamorous galleriste.
With their various menfolk unseen – old Jack, American Ken, faithless Graham – the four women express much about motherhood and daughterhood which needs expressing: love, resentment, secrets, and the mother-daughter misunderstandings inevitable in a fast-changing century. As Doris says, each generation demands more than the one before, and so finds its own disappointments. Doris had the mangle-bound hardship and a long marriage with no exit; Margaret wage-earning responsibility without prestige, Jackie freedom and adventure but a broken maternal heart. Rosie seems, as the play ends on her 16th birthday, to be the winner, the end of the evolution. But one can’t help working out that she would now be in her forties, battling with IVF or fretting about sexting teenagers, an endless mortgage and a husband with a midlife crisis.…
That’s not in the play of course, but the fact that one muses on it shows that Keatley’s narrative, through artful time-shifts, still has heft and strength : the rarity of her pitiless focus on ordinary women’s experience made the play a sensation in 1985. Her ear is pitch-perfect down the decades: from Doris’ typical wartime injunction to her piano-bashing daughter “less passion and more perseverance”, to the winceable moment when the busy working mother Margaret – her teenage daughter having had unprotected sex – moans “If you’d asked me..” and gets the devastating reply from Jackie “I did say I wanted to talk to you , and you said we can talk while we go round the garden centre”. Ouch.
There are many such moments, superbly underwritten but devastating, as the story unfolds. Katie Brayben is a strong Jackie: conflicted, heartbroken about the baby but ambitious; Caroline Faber gives Margaret, the most cheated of them all, a weary solidity; Serena Manteghi has a tricky job, since we only see Rosie from a hyperactive eight years old to a bratty sixteen, and the capering and spoilt-kid cuteness make it – in any production – difficult to get the audience to empathize as Margaret and Jackie fight over who she should live with. Manteghi could – maybe will as the show settles – tone down the capering a bit.
It is set rather bleakly in a white box amid TV screens , flashing newsreels and showing the year and the place (though rather too quickly, you could miss it if you didn’t know the play’s structure) but props warm it up from time to time. A bigger quibble in Paul Robinson’s production for Tiny FIres is that the odd interludes where the cast become small girls playing – necessary in Keatley’s vision to define their innate ferocity – feel intrusive. They smell too much of a 1980s drama-school exercise. But they’re in the play so must be honoured. And Lipman can do that stuff , and make us laugh and believe it, as well as she does everything else. What a marvel.
box office 0844 264 2140 to 21 May.