We’ve all wanted to just throw in the towel and run away sometimes, haven’t we? When the daily humdrummery of life gets too montonous, or repetitive, or just too damn hard, we’ve had those thoughts about not turning up the next day, and simply disappearing. A new life with new rules. A new you!
This is how Scarlett feels. She rocks up somewhere in rural Wales with the intention of buying a rundown old stone chapel, restoring it and living there for the rest of her days, away from the noise and bustle and stress of London life. And when she’s asked about her life back home, and what she’s left behind, Scarlett initially blanks it off – she has a business she plans to close down, a mother and daughter she denies exist. Scarlett is simply desperate to escape, both her own life and those within it.
Colette Kane – winner of the Royal Literary Fund’s JB Priestley Award in 2013 and now a burgeoning playwright for stage and screen – is a remarkable talent. This play is intelligent and thought-provoking, it is vital and funny and revealing, and gives a rattlingly honest portrayal of the nature of the relationship between mothers and daughters of all generations. Kane’s script is so arresting and insightful that by the end of the 75-minute piece, you feel a deep connection with the five characters. In short, Kane is a gift to the stage.
Without giving too much away, we see Scarlett attempt to realign her life as some kind of earth mother living in the Welsh foothills, leading a quiet existence of contemplation and simplicity. Maybe she’s been reading too many mindfulness books, but all she wants is to shed the shackles of city life and the hustling capitalism that goes with it, and just lead a more rewarding life. As she says: “I don’t want to make a living, I want to make a life.”
Billy, Gaby French
Scarlett, Kate Ashfield
It appears she’s been driven away in part by her mother, with whom she has a highly symbiotic relationship. They call each other at least three times a day – if I spoke to my mum that often, I’d have no time to turn around. Scarlett has been slowly driven mad by this cloying co-dependence. She is 40, her 18-year-old daughter is away at university, and Scarlett has begun to ask what’s left in life for her. It’s the sort of question many parents probably ask of themselves when their chicks fly the coop, but Scarlett has decided to do something about it.
She meets the brusque, bosomy Eira, whose rundown chapel is on the market and in Scarlett’s sights, but the truth is, Eira doesn’t want to sell it to “outsiders”, Londoners who might use it only a few times every summer as a holiday getaway. She also meets Eira’s granddaughter Billy, a 14-year-old tomboy who is much more self-aware and worldly wise than first impressions allow. And following Scarlett to Wales is her battleaxe mother Bette and vexed daughter Lydia.
These five women are like fire and water together, in differing combinations. Bette is a typical possessive mother who thinks she knows what’s right for her daughter, while Lydia is a spiky but vulnerable teenager going through that stage when you believe everything in life is awful, but it’s probably nothing of the sort.
Joanna Bacon is searingly ferocious as Bette, a woman obviously not to be trifled with and who isn’t used to being trifled with either! But despite her sharp defenses, she does let her drawbridge down occasionally, even if it is more to let people in than herself out. Bethan Cullinane gives Lydia layers which take some peeling, culminating in a kind of epiphany where she comes round to her mother’s way of thinking, and ends up being her advocate.
Gaby French makes her professional debut as Billy, but you’d never guess that. She infuses Billy with an endearing quality, mixing a knowing innocence with a sharp intelligence. Billy may be only 14, and she may have grown up with the relative restrictions of living in rural Wales, but she’s not daft and she’s not without ambition. It’s a very lovingly written character, but it takes an actor with some insight to portray Billy with the right amount of natural charm. French is one to watch.
Lynn Hunter’s formidable Eira is a fantastic creation for any actor to bring alive, and Hunter’s perfectly cast. On the surface, she’s stand-offish and cold, certainly unwelcoming, but beneath there’s a terrible sadness which drives her, or “stuck grief” as Billy calls it. Both Eira and Billy have lost someone close to them, and it is this grief which informs both their actions ultimately.
And then there’s Kate Ashfield as Scarlett, the play’s anchor and muse, a woman tormented by her own life and driven to change it for the better. But it’s not so easy to just drop all your responsibilities and start over. She has a business to run (“But I don’t want a life in soft furnishings!”) and a family to consider, a family that needs her more than she realises. Ashfield is stunning as Scarlett, coasting serenely through proceedings, giving the character natural depth and vulnerability. We might sympathise or empathise with Scarlett’s point of view, but she’s not perfect – you can’t go missing for six days without a word to your loved ones, and you can’t just cut your mother and daughter off and only communicate with them by letter. Not without talking to them first! It’s a shame that we don’t get a fuller idea of exactly what’s made Scarlett finally snap and embark on this course of action. There’s a nagging mother, yes, but it must be more than that too.
Kane’s script is intensely moving (you’ll cry for a horse you’ve never met) and honest, but also belly-burstingly funny. There’s one scene where Eira reveals the true nature of her sex life which is guaranteed to bring the house down, and the tirade of jibes and exasperated remarks Bette makes about Scarlett’s ideas will ring true for mums and daughters in the audience, but are also very amusing (“She’s not getting a hawk… she’s not right in the head!” Bette rants drily).
Performed on a simple but well-crafted set by Polly Sullivan consisting of a ramshackle Welsh chapel and a patch of grassy hillside, director Mel Hillyard manages to put together a beautiful, powerful and truthful production of what is a fist-punchingly well written play. It might be a play about women, and how women are with women, but it speaks to both genders so very clearly because we all know a Scarlett or a Bette or an Eira. When theatre is this good, there’s no better food on Earth.
Until April 15
Main image: Lydia, Bethan Cullinane and Bette, Joanna Bacon.
Images: Robert Day