London goes to the polls this week to elect a new mayor and on the ballot only a quarter of the 12 candidates are female from the Green Party, Liberal Democrats and the newly formed Women’s Equality Party which seeks to capitalise on a cultural wave of discussion and debates about the position of women in modern society. Interesting then, that the St James’s Theatre has revived Charlotte Keatley’s play My Mother Said I Never Should charting changing expectations of women’s lives in the twentieth century. Amazingly this play hasn’t been performed in London for 25 years – an extraordinary revelation given the four substantial roles it offers to actors – so this was my first encounter with the complete text, having only been given the abstract childhood scenes to perform in GCSE Drama.
The story is considerably more impactful than my 16-year old self was allowed to discover and follows four generations of one family from the early 1900s to the 1980s, examining how the relationships between mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters altered as society became more permissive and women began to find a life beyond the kitchen. Doris is the family’s matriarch, born in 1900 and expected to relinquish her teaching career when she marries. A woman of her time, Doris is seemingly aloof, restrained and strict with her own daughter Margaret who goes on to marry a GI much to her mother’s disgust. The result is Jackie, a child of the 60s, who goes to art college and becomes a successful gallery owner in the 80s, running her own business and enjoying all the newly won freedoms of the age. But Jackie secretly gave up her own baby allowing Margaret to raise Rosie as her own, an emotional decision that continues to plague her as she watches her daughter grow and thinking of someone else as her mother.
Keatley mixes all these stories together so we continuously flit between the decades, allowing the consequences of their decisions and those different approaches to motherhood to become really stark, emphasising what an important period of change this was in women’s lives. This production at the St James’s doesn’t make any judgements either about who was right or wrong, but sees choice as a product of its time. None of these women do anything lightly and though they may make heartbreaking (or depending on your perspective selfish) decisions – as Jackie in particular does to give up her child – these are not without life-affecting consequence. What is clear is that the modern right to work and to choose have been hard won, but women continue to feel torn between what’s best for themselves and what’s best for their families.
Paul Robinson’s production may deal with (now) historic projections of motherhood but the pared down vision feels as fresh and relevant as the original production must have done at the Royal Court in 1989. Signe Beckmann’s set is sparse and whitewashed littered with the odd TV screen which is used to reinforce what era we’re in between scenes – and the ongoing media pressure to live a certain way – which allows the performances to take centre stage. There are a few props including a hint of a piano (four legs only) but this serves as a reflection of the plot in which societal suggestions of how women ought to be are replicated in the suggested world they inhabit, a world that is incomplete. It is possible to see this as an insight into the half-lives the characters seem to live, choosing family or a career but never able to successfully have both – a dilemma modern woman can empathise with.
In a production of this nature, so much relies on the performances and this play offers opportunities for actors to showcase their range, something which the cast take full advantage of. My Mother Said I Never Should has a non-linear structure so as well as playing themselves at various ages the performers are required to become considerably older or younger within moments as the scene changes. Most challenging of all, and the hardest element to depict, are the waste-ground scenes that punctuate the story in which all four women as children aged from 5-9 years old play games together as classmates, despite continuing to represent their original time period and location. By stepping out of the play momentarily we see how similar yet different their childhoods had been, from the wide-eyed innocence of Doris in frilly knickers growing up in around 1905, to the tomboyish Rosie in dungarees talking about boys. The games are the same but the attitudes and freedoms change.
Best among the performances is an absolute gut-wrencher from Katie Brayben as modern mother Jackie. We first see her careering around the stage as her nine year old self performing faux voodoo and scaring the other children, a perfect set-up for what is to come because Jackie does scare her family by being the first to put her career before her child. Brayben makes this an excruciating decision for Jackie, one her mother Margaret cannot see or understand, and the scene in which she hands over the baby is incredibly poignant – she’s knows it’s for the best but is devastated all the same. Even better, having played Rosie’s sister for so long, is the moment the truth is discovered and Brayben uses all her skills to display years of pain, regret and anguish that may have you reaching for the tissues.
Equally brilliant is Maureen Lipman with a quite different performance as the initially formal and buttoned-up Doris, raised to be a lady, seeking only home and family, but almost lamenting the era in which she was raised because the opportunities afforded to later generations were denied her. While we see her as a sweet and innocent 5 year old in the wasteland scenes, this again reflects the engagement her adult self will have with the world. Doris is a prim and often stern mother to Margaret, but actually a cosy and warm great-grandmother to Rosie, and as the story unfolds we see her shift with the decades becoming a wise and ultimately more relaxed figure than the other women because she has seen so much.
My Mother Said I Never Should is a modern classic and its return to London after so long makes this a rare chance to see piece of writing about the demands made on women’s lives that still resonates. The pressure to have a successful career but still be a perfect 50s-style parent continues to exist and while young women are told they can be anything, if they chose not to be mothers at all – as Jackie does – a social stigma still remains. The production at the St James’s feels fresh and innovative, with strong performances from its four leads. Whether or not you choose a female candidate for London’s mayor this week, a wider interest in women’s roles in society, sparked by last year’s Suffragette film, means that this timely production of Keatley’s play will continue the debate, and is a wonderful evening at the theatre.
My Mother Said I Never Should is at the St James’s Theatre until 21 May. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1