Charlotte Keatley’s award-winning My Mother Said I Never Should, written in 1987, has since been translated into 23 languages, is studied in schools and has become one of the most often performed plays by a woman writer. Telling the story of four generations of women in one family the piece examines themes of mothers and daughters, with all those relationships’ complexities, love, sacrifice and aspiration. This latest revival at St James Theatre is directed by Paul Robinson , and produced by Tara Finney.
The main action begins during an air-raid in World War ll with emotionally distant Doris (Maureen Lipman), a former teacher, emphasising the values of hard work and self-reliance to her young daughter, Margaret (Caroline Faber). However, the best laid plans of mice and women go astray, and Doris later admits that mothers often do what they think best for their children at the time, only to find it was not what their offspring needed or wanted. These mistakes, each in their own way, are repeated by the following generations, and the original errors resonate and have consequences for both Margaret’s child Jackie (Katie Brayben, fresh from her award winning role of Carole King in the musical Beautiful), and her daughter Rosie (Serena Manteghi).
Their stories are told in a non-linear, fragmentary way, still unusual in theatrical form in the 1980s. The play opens with three young girls playing with fantasy and plotting to kill their Mummies. Far from sentimental, these children are sinister. The ages and maturity of the children is altered, reflecting their eventual roles in real life. Doris, the oldest adult, is now five, the youngest; Rosie is eight, while Margaret and Jackie are both nine, the eldest but the same age as each other, symbolically equal.
Their movements build to a chilling ritualistic crescendo, as though part of a witches coven, reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
Signe Beckmann’s sparse minimalist set is a bare stage with televisions scattered in piles, the screens of which convey to us the dates and locations of the scenes, together with some interesting archive news shots and footage, and three carved wooden legs representing a piano, all of which adds to the general feel of stark choices and uncomfortable despair.
There are moments of comic relief, though, not least from the waspishly witty lines from Doris, a no-nonsense Northern woman with a “get on with it” attitude, delivered with assured aplomb by Lipman, and there is warmth and solidarity between the characters alongside the smouldering resentment and disenchantment.
All the cast is good. Brayben delivers a fine performance in Jackie, the first of the women to pursue a career of her choice, yet also unable to express her love and loss appropriately; Faber arguably has the most difficult role to portray with its self-sacrificing restraint, but does so with quiet dignity, and Manteghi gives an energetic depiction of the young idealistic Rosie.
Despite some (though by no means all) of the gender politics of the time of its writing having moved on, the family tensions, specifically those between women, remain timeless. Hence, the play remains relevant. This production is well worth seeing.