My Mother Said I Never Should by Charlotte Keatley
Review by Lee Farley
LONDON Classic Theatre bring a revival of Charlotte Keatley’s 1987 play to Malvern Theatres in 2018, during a time of social and political unrest, uncertainty, and debate.
Women are at the heart of the play, and the playwright is concerned with bringing their relationships, dreams, and realities to the fore. Can a 30-year-old drama illuminate anything fresh or interesting about our modern lives, offering new perspectives, or relevant reflections from history?
My Mother Said I Never Should is predominantly a naturalistic domestic drama telling the story of four women from the same family. The scenes take pace mainly in the centre of the 20th century, offering snapshots of the story as the characters leave home, grow older, have children, look for work, study, and uncover truths about their family history. The women in the family argue, despair, hide motives, and struggle to fulfil their desires. They are tied to a cyclical destiny that seems to control them from generation to generation. Male characters are mentioned, but absent, and their exclusion gives the women an opportunity to tell the story from their perspective – a challenging and welcome approach to theatre writing in 1987.
The play also contains scenes set in ‘The Wasteground’ – the four actors play children who reflect some of the older women’s attitudes and suggest that nature, rather than nurture, is responsible for the characters’ psychological structure. Nothing changes, what goes around comes around.
It’s interesting to revisit this well-known text, but only as a slice of theatre history. There’s fun to be found in the dialogue and references to formica, lily of the valley, and the two-minute cut off for cheap phone calls. Charlotte Keatley has a Victoria Wood-like ear for the inherent comedy of domestic everyday items. There are fewer contemporary parallels, however. The four women are constrained by a very 1980s plot – the main narrative device is straight out of a soap opera and has become over-familiar since 1987. Working life and gender politics have moved into very different areas of discussion, leaving this play’s conflicts seeming old-fashioned and irrelevant.
Bek Palmer’s set gives us a good insight into the structure of ‘The Wasteground’, but this leaves the majority of the play lacking a coherent environment. The open playing space makes the intimate domestic scenes public, stripping them of their voyeuristic family drama composition. Michael Cabot’s direction is content to set the play when it was written. No attempts are made to update the dialogue or setting. This works fine, but makes the production engaging from an heritage perspective only.
The four actors are committed and vibrant, particularly Connie Walker’s restrained and empathetic Margaret. Bek Palmer’s costume designs are excellent – evoking instantly the different time periods, and giving a visual insight into the characters situation. The production’s rhythms are often unvaried and unengaging, resulting in some scenes of crucial family friction disappearing without delivering the required dynamic impact.
Charlotte Keatley’s play is well-structured and has some absorbing ideas which occasionally resonate from 1987 Britain. As an exercise in nostalgia, the production has merit, but as a challenging, contemporary drama it offers little to a modern audience.