St James Theatre, London
Written by Charlotte Keatley
Directed by Paul Robinson
There's a pain and beauty to this first London revival of My Mother Said I Never Should in nearly 30 years that is, at times, quite devastating.
Like a ride on a fairground waltzer, Charlotte Keatley's narrative spins us around and through four generations of Doris Partington's family. Her scenes jump between the years, playing out the evolution of female emancipation in post-war England.
Keatley's writing is finely honed. She has crafted a (subtly updated) play that is as much a commentary upon Britain's social history as it is a study of four women. There may be a timelessness to the challenges of a loveless marriage, but whilst Maureen Lipman's Doris weathered 61 years of wedlock, confessing on her husband's death that "I don't think we liked each other very much", daughter Margaret sees her own marriage fail in middle-age in the 1980s, whilst granddaughter Jackie faces her own teenage, agonising compromise following the unplanned birth of her daughter Rosie.
Lipman heads a quartet that must surely represent one of the finest ensembles in town. In a play that explores the power and the bind of motherhood, Keatley's characters are stoic. Lipman's brings a measured wisdom and a quiet wounded pain to Doris. All seeing and all knowing, she seasons the morsels of wit that Keatley has sprinkled with a perfect nuance, capturing our affection and respect.
Katie Brayben as Jackie has a first half that could be likened to “Fantine's back story”. Her pain as mother Margaret takes Rosie to raise as her own is a masterclass in understated agony. And it's not just the acting too that is so brilliant - it is Keatley's brutally honest text. Unlike Fantine these women aren’t heroines of grand literature. Fictitious yes, but played out against the suburbs of Manchester and Croydon, they are a part of all our lives.
Caroline Faber's Margaret faces her own agonies. Supporting her daughter, loving and raising her granddaughter and ultimately deserted by her husband, she brings a resonant cadence to her speeches. And then there's Serena Manteghi's gorgeous Rosie. In the early scenes, when the stage-baby is simply a mass of swaddling, Manteghi sits stage right, gurgling and cooing and (brilliantly) giving vocal life to the linen. As she grows into adolescence we forget that the actor's an adult. Manteghi captures Rosie’s childhood without cliché and as the inevitable denouement looms, her pain is refreshingly free of melodrama.
Paul Robinson directs with sensitivity as Simon Slater's sound and music enhance proceedings, with the production marking an impressive debut by producers Tiny Fires.
Go see this play – the acting is sensational.
Runs until 21st May
Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown