My Mother Said I Never Should

by Charlotte Keatley

London Classic Theatre

York Theatre Royal, 20 November

Charlotte Keatley’s My Mother Said I Never Should is an important play for me. When I was 17 my wonderful drama teacher chose it as our A Level performance piece; we studied it, rehearsed it, spoke about it and our own experiences of being women. I can’t say I loved it at every moment during that period – cutting a play to smithereens to accommodate just two actors, a limited timeframe and the arbitrary requirements of a travelling examiner doesn’t generally make for a thorough appreciation of a play – but I can’t say it didn’t have a lasting impact on me.

A lot has changed for me personally since then; I’ve gone to university (in Manchester no less, which is partiuclarly relevant to this play), had jobs, learned to small talk, been unbelievably sad and unbelievably happy, got myself a Dan and known all sorts of people. It’s also been enough time to get some perspective on some of the more difficult family stuff I was in the midst of when I was a teenager. Safe to say this production was a lovely reminder of how much we change and learn without even realising it, as well as a reminder of how important relationships are seldom easy.

The play follows four generations of women from the same family across several decades of their lives, centring around Jackie’s decision to give her infant daughter Rosie to her mother to raise. It examines their relationships with one another, and how they are shaped by their expectations of each other and themselves, exploring the cost of freedom and change. It is very much a play of its time, (something that is shouted loud and clear by the fantastic costuming in LCT’s production – I’m looking at you purple jumpsuit), but that is by no means to suggest it is not still blisteringly relevant.

Part of the allure of this play to a young Sarah who had grown up reading, watching, and largely admiring solely male protagonists (to the detriment of my self image) was its placing the female experience, and therefore female actors, front and centre. The four actors in LCT’s production are fantastic. Carole Dance as Doris, Connie Walker as Margaret, Kathryn Ritchie as Jackie and Felicity Houlbrooke as Rosie are all completely distinct characters and yet strikingly familial.

The portrayal of the complexity of their relationships and the subtlety of the traits and anxieties that have been passed down through generations is not only a testament to Keatley’s writing, but to the emotional dexterity of these actors. To portray the push and pull of love, resentment and the desire for independence that feels pretty universal to the female experience is no easy feat, and the performances felt steeped in personal experience.

The realism in the dialogue and performances is all the more important in contrast to the abstract nature of the set – in this case a haunting and surprisingly versatile junkyard designed by Bek Palmer. I was easily transported from 1940s living room to 1980s office without having to stretch my imagination through the strength of the performances.

I have always struggled with the parts of this play involving the actors playing children, but I will say Dance and Walker in particular managed to pull these difficult segments off with surprising innocence and charm. Whilst I don’t think I’ll ever be completely comfortable with it – and I don’t think we’re necessarily meant to be – I got much more of a sense of the importance of those sections seeing them brought to life by such accomplished actors.

I was struck by so many things that had never occurred to me before I had the chance to see this play as it is meant to be seen. There is a sense of energy and urgency amongst the women that I found strangely moving, probably because it reminded me so strongly of so many of my favourite women. I also realised how incredibly keenly observed much of the dialogue is; I feel like every other line I was thinking it was like listening to my mum, or my sister, or Dan’s gran.

I was surprised by how much My Mother Said spoke to me, and in such a different way to when I was a teenager. I suspect that I will respond to it completely differently in another 10 years time and that is a rare thing for a piece of writing or performance to accomplish. I could go on and on. The bottom line is that I am hugely grateful to LCT for taking this production around the country and I feel very lucky that they stopped in York. I’ve very much hijacked this review to talk about my feelings but hear me when I say this was a beautifully put together and acted production. They have taken Keatley’s script and brought it to its full potential, and it’s something I think any person who is, or loves, or knows women should see.

York is the last stop on LCT’s tour so there’s not much time left, but see My Mother Said I Never Should at York Theatre Royal until this Saturday 24 November.