“My Mother Said I Never Should” came to the Grand with much high praise. Written in 1985, Charlotte Keatley challenged a number of drama boundaries at the time by writing a play for four women, by exploring a key female relationship – mothers and daughters – and by structuring the play “kaleidoscopically”. It has been translated into many languages and has been credited with being ” the most commonly performed play by a female playwright worldwide” – although some now say the “The Vagina Monologues” has taken this spot.
The clue to the play’s themes are in the title – love, jealousy, control, rebellion – between four generations of mothers and daughters in the twentieth century. The non – linear structure moves between the locations and events of the women’s lives, and the Wasteground – a rough but magical space where the characters play as children away from adults or boys. The designer Bek Palmer decided to make the Wasteground the permanent framing set and to present the other scenes within that space . The physical set changes were accomplished discretely and efficiently. It was interesting to see the Wasteground on stage before the start of the play and to try and identify some of the “historic” detritus therein – or example a wooden ironing board, an old fashioned pram, and a pile of wood that subsequently became a piano. But as a result of the set, there were limited identifiers of where and when each short scene was taking place (19 in all) – mainly clothes and a few physical markers sometimes drawn from the Wasteground. It was therefore difficult at times to be sure of where and when, particularly as the structure of the play deliberately jumped forward and back from one time and place to another.
The play makes tremendous demands on the actors. All of them have to play children and then varying degrees of women getting older. Because of the dominance of the Wasteground in this production, the children’s scenes are particularly important. T play a child as an adult must be extremely difficult and the Wasteground scenes lost some of their impact because some of the children were not quite believable. Judith Paris who played Doris, the oldest character, underplayed the child role quite successfully compared with Lisa Burrows who played Margaret and Kathryn Ritchie who played Jackie. Rebecca Birch who played the youngest, Rosie, had less of a range in age to cover, managed not to overplay the role.
Overall the performance was disappointing. It lacked an effective contract between light and shade, and potentially humorous moments were mostly lost on the audience. It also lacked pace – it was along wait in Act 111 for Rosie to discover her heritage. The question arises whether the play itself is somewhat dated. Certainly it was written at a time when parts for women were very limited or absent. The characters seemed somewhat stereotyped: the older, strict mother; the daughter who tries to break free but is still constrained; the very rebellious daughter who joins the working world and gives her daughter to be brought up as her mother’s; and the youngest daughter who is left guessing about this family secret. It is now a time of much more complex, diverse and sometimes darker roles for women – such as July and Caroline in The Long Song, and DC Ros Hartley in Line of Duty. Despite the drama being on some GCSE syllabi, perhaps it’s time to rethink this version of the mother-daughter dynamic.