My Mother Said I Never Should….revive this play again?

Don’t get me wrong – there were aspects of the play I loved….The feral quality of little girls ‘playing’ together, the seemingly casual way they dish out hurt and deal with their own hurt, voicing all the big questions that the grown-ups avoid: Where do you go when you die? How does the seed get into your tummy? What makes it grow? Why does Daddy squeeze Mummy so hard to show he loves her? I liked the set, a  wasteground as a jumble of stuff used and discarded throughout the course of the four women’s lives from the 1920s to the 1980s, where the children played, and the actors created domesticity as they played out their lives.  The action moves between eras, and although it takes some adjustment, the swift transitions between time and  place keep interest high.

Asking grown women to play children has its pitfalls, and sadly many of these are dropped into.  Over-emphasis in tone and gesture and an awkwardness of movement, make the children’s scenes painful at times, and lack authenticity, even though the content of the scenes has resonance.  It is a play of its time and was ground-breaking in 1987, but in today’s world the issues addressed  – career choices and expectations for women, sexual freedom, financial independence, relationships between men and women – seem muted, mentioned but not explored, and true conflict avoided.  Absentee men are constantly referenced, their effects on the lives of the women are seen, felt, discussed, but without any real anger on the part of these women.

Judith Paris as Doris Partington is easily the most fluent and versatile of the four actors, the grandmother of the group; Rebecca Birch as Rosie Metcalfe was more comfortable as a teenager, though very convincing as a crying baby.  The most problematic relationship for me was between the mother and daughter combo, Lisa Burrows as Margaret the mother, and Kathryn Ritchie as Jackie her daughter.  They worked almost too hard at not communicating so that many of their scenes felt unconvincing and lacked conviction. Michael Cabot the Director took a standpoint of emphasising the sameness of the women’s experiences,  stating  ‘each successive generation echoes similar mistakes made by the one before’.  There have been massive changes in women’s lives over this period of time;  I feel he missed that opportunity to show how women have moved on, made different choices, become empowered and taken control of their own destiny.

As ever, the Coliseum was welcoming and a great venue.

My Mother Said I Never Should by Charlotte Keatley, at the Coliseum Oldham, 2-6 April 2019


She[a]r exhilaration in the Barber shop

The Barber Shop Chronicles written by Inua Ellams, at the Royal Exchange, Manchester must be the most ebullient, beguiling, effervescent, bopping and rapping entertainment available in the UK right now.  An uplifted globe lights up the relevant African country, as the action moves between barber shops in Lagos, Accra, Jo’burg, Harare, Kampala and Accra while a barber shop in Peckham, London sandwiches them together.  Football unites, and divides, the men during one match on one day of the year. In this play your tribe is through allegiance to either Chelsea or Barcelona!

Power is in the hands of the barber;  as ‘Director of Hair’ he can create a persona, and using mirror magic persuade the punter that he has become that aerodynamic BMW driver and that he will get the job. In the sacred space of the barber shop there can be intimacy, conflict, political analysis, shared experiences; the customers are safe in the knowledge that it can be left behind once outside the door, but that a return is inevitable.

Performed at high speed, fuelled by driving rhythmic music, sonorous harmonic songs,  and cape-waving dance, this dynamic ensemble of African men excel at story telling,  creating larger than life characters who take up all the available space when they take centre stage.  Spoken in a poetic sing-song rhythm, using rich and earthy language, the audience becomes intensely involved. We move between laughter and compassion, anger and shame,  as the stories unfold, meld and merge, and the performers reveal their innermost selves. Some of the most emotional moments occur in discussions of being disciplined and the sorts of fathers they had as role models. Others had no experience to build on, being abandoned at birth.  Recent history is explored, and the effects of colonialism: Nigerian experience is summarised thus  –

We had the land they had the Bible –

We closed our eyes –

When we opened them, they had the landwe had the Bible!!!

If only my visits to my ‘barber’ were so engaging, so effervescent,  and such fun!

The play can be seen until 23 March in Manchester; directed by Bijan Sheibani, it is a co-production between Fuel, the National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse.



Cracking Skulls to music……

Did I really laugh out loud at the vision of human skulls being cracked to pieces with a mallet by two insanely drunken Irish men, to the strains of Dana’s Eurovision song, ‘All Kinds of Everything’? Was there not an intake of breath at the use of language from another era, with ‘darkies’ and ‘lesboes’ referenced? How can anyone make such an entertaining play about a grave-digger, a policeman, a bingo-playing Granny, and a weak-witted boy? This is evidence of the sheer skill with which Martin McDonagh crafts his subversive plays, chock-full of black humour as paeans to  small-town Irish life, where bingo and illegal stills of poteen fuel everyday gossip, while tragic events such as deadly car crashes, grave robbing, drink driving and domestic violence seethe below the surface.

Chris Lawson has directed at the Coliseum in Oldham a welcome revival of the McDonagh play, ‘A Skull in Connemara’, which premiered in 1997 at the Royal Court in London. The four highly talented performers mine every seam of humour and nuance, to portray a complexity of relationships and events which are belied at first  glance by the poverty of dress and the absence of any material comforts on the domestic front. The set is simple –  at the back a fire, a chair, a cupboard, a radio in a bare-plastered room; at the front a graveyard delineated by soil and an empty pit ready for exhumation.

John O’Dowd as Mick the tragic husband wears his melancholy heavily, lightening up only when the poteen takes hold, becoming positively gleeful with a mallet in his hand. His partner in skull-bashing, young Mairtin, played by Liam Heslin, has a poetic fluency in speech and demeanour, though a conversational style quite devoid of any intellectual content. Granny MaryJohnny Rafferty, played by Jenny Lee, is adroit in keeping her profile low while her ear is attuned to any glimmer of gossip or ‘aspersions’ about the death of Mick’s wife in a car crash seven years ago. The quartet is completed by Griffin Stevens as Thomas, the local Garda, wonderfully dim yet with ambition to make his name by proving that the death in question was not an accident after all.

At the end we are left with our own theories as to the questions posed by the play – the only certainty we can have is that digging up the past, whether literally as here, or figuratively,  is an occupation that is part of the human condition, and once embarked upon may lead to unforeseeable outcomes.

As an afterthought, I highly recommend the Coliseum itself. Although situated on a side street, so it seems a little out of the way, once you get inside the welcome is warm, the bar is roomy, the auditorium is spacious and comfortable, and the whole theatre-going experience is extremely enjoyable. Go and see for yourself.



A driven Mother Courage in a relaxed performance

A relaxed performance ? do the actors ‘loll’ about and the techie people miss their cues? Not a bit of it, in the afternoon show of Mother Courage at the Royal Exchange Theatre on Tuesday 26 February. The performance was gripping, well-realised by a small ensemble of well-drilled actors, musicians and tech support.  Relaxed in this context meant that many of the conventions that might be seen as constraints on an audience were suspended; we were introduced to the actors, the assistant director gave us a briefing as to what would be different, including house lights not lowered, doors to the exits left open, a freedom to come and go should one need to move, and an expectation that  the performance was accessible to all, including feeding mothers, dementia sufferers, and those with autism. It felt great, and was hugely enjoyable; I especially relished groans of reaction at some points, crying babies being soothed, and people freely coming and going.

This production is a new adaptation by Anna Jordan, directed by Amy Hodge. The action has  moved from the seventeenth century to an imagined future, 2080, in which Europe, envisaged as a set of grid squares, is fought over by the red and blue factions. This world is wildly dysfunctional, based on the supposition that our generation and those who come after have despoiled the planet of most of its resources  and that ‘society’ has broken down. Mother Courage and her children veer from side to side of the opposing forces, making a scanty living from selling the ever-changing contents of her home-cum-icecream van. The world the family inhabit is all too credible, in this era of climate change and Extinction Rebellion trying to bring us all to our senses.

The language of this adaptation is accessible, earthy, modern; Mother Courage as realised by Julie Hesmondhalgh is feisty, resilient, and direct, telling a soldier ‘your balls are ripe for a kicking – fuck off!!!” She’s not an admirable character, but she’s a survivor, denying her own son not once but twice. At the end she is still standing, still dragging her livelihood behind her;  she has lost all three of her children but not her own grasp on life.

Stand out performances from Hedydd Dylan as Yvette the prostitute, and Rose Ayling-Ellis as Katrin and the newly-composed music sweeps the action along through a range from Irish folk to East European Jewish to the Appalachian banjo. It’s a must see.