My Mother Said I Never Should, St James Theatre - Review

Plays about generations of women are always interesting and depending when they were written, can indirectly shed light on the values and experiences of the author. Written by Charlotte Keatley, My Mother Said I Never Should (which was first performed in 1987) tackles the difficult relationships between mothers and daughters, while also exploring the themes of growing up, motherhood and independence.

Spanning several decades, the way the lives of Doris (Maureen Lipman), Caroline Faber (Margaret), Katie Bryden (Jackie) and Serena Manteghi (Rosie) touch upon seminal moments of the 20th century, as well as different parts of the UK reminded me of the seminal BBC series Our Friends In The North.

The play initially begins in a non-realistic, abstract fashion, with televisions (that denote the year each scene is set) littered across a grey background. Acting like young children at play, the cast sing the rhyme which 'My Mother Never Should' originated from (and like most children's rhymes has dark undertones). To make things a tad confusing, there's no correlation between the actual age of the actor and who is mean to be the eldest of the children (Lipman plays the youngest) though there is an oblique meaning about maturity behind this. Their playful banter later strays into"killing their mummy", a quasi-Freudian notion which intellectually I can see as an allusion to some of the play's themes, but as a phrase, as unnerving as matricide in Greek tragedies.

More successful are the scenes that centre on the family, especially in the second half, where the consequences of past choices come to the fore. Essentially the linchpin of the play is Margaret, whose experiences as a child affect the decisions she makes a mother down the line. When we first see her as a child in 1940, her mother Doris instructs her to call her "Mother" instead of "Mummy". Years of formal behaviour and keeping an emotional distance as a teacher are hard to shake off... Many years later, the themes of careers versus motherhood that Caryl Churchill's Top Girls touches on are very much present in Margaret's life, as her sacrifices and silence makes it possible for her daughter Jackie to have a career without any impediments.

While Doris starts out as an authoritative figure, time softens her rigidity, to the point that she's positively laid back with her great-granddaughter Rosie. Lipman's performance really holds the play together, her dry comments offer wit and perspective on the lives of her descendants.

It is rather surprising that My Mother Said I Never Should hasn't had a professional run in London (as opposed to the rest of the UK/World) since its inaugural run. If it wasn't for Tiny Fires Theatre Company, and their passion and foresight, it would still be a 'forgotten text'.

Keatley's play isn't afraid to look at the influence, both positive and negative, that women and family have on each other. And while society and external influences may have at times dampened and hindered the progress of women over the years, support from family can be invaluable – even if it isn't immediately recognised at the time.

© Michael Davis 2016

My Mother Said I Never Should runs at St James Theatre, London until 21st May 2016.


Picture credit: Alex Harvey-Brown (Savannah Photographic)

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