“My Mother Said I Never Should” was first performed nearly thirty years ago so the retrospective is not just within the play itself (as far back as 1905) but to 1987 when the author, Charlotte Keatley, created this masterful look at motherhood. The play is about other things than being a mother – the role of women in society and the changes in that role over 85 years – but motherhood is central. Looked at from today when, aspirationally at least, there is no job a man does that a woman can’t do the uniqueness of being a woman is thrown even more into sharp relief. Only a woman can give birth and that means that motherhood is so much greater a phenomenon than fatherhood! In her introduction to this production the playwright says “The vast increase of women in high power jobs…has not been matched by a vast increase in men sharing the responsibilities of raising the next generation”. This fine play more than suggests why that might be!
The four characters are Doris (born 1900), her daughter Margaret (born 1931), Margaret’s daughter Jackie (born 1952) and Jackie’s daughter Rosie (born 1971). Four generations spanning the greater part of the 20th Century. The play moves back and forth in time and also includes some scenes when the four are young and play together – the title is from the Nursery rhyme which finishes “Naughty girl to disobey”. Among these games are “birth games” where the girls act out childbirth – embryonic wives and mothers all. The character of Doris is established in a 1940 scene which is set in Cheadle Hulme (the epitome of upwardly mobile Manchester) where language and other indicators of gentility are important “Mayn’t we” not “Can’t me” and Margaret having piano lessons. “Father” is indirectly referenced occasionally but the mother/daughter duality of the play is established early on. This continues with an exploration of Margaret, now as a mother, with Jackie in 1961. Doris, now 61, explains to Jackie that Margaret is still her “little girl” – “You are always your mother’s child, my mother used to say” – a reference back to the early years of the century which suggests that the mother/daughter relationship norms are a very long established constant.
By 1969 we are in the “swinging sixties”, a few years after sex has begun and, as we learn, has been discovered by Margaret’s daughter Jackie at a party in Hammersmith (a long way from Cheadle Hulme). “It was no big deal. It was a relief to get it over with” she says with the jejune nonchalance of a seventeen-year-old in the age of free love. Naughty girl to disobey. Two years later we out find that there can be consequences of these freedoms for Jackie is now an unmarried mother struggling in Moss Side (a very long way from Cheadle Hulme) with three-month-year-old Rosie. Now, crucially, the definitive moment of the play as Margaret takes Rosie away, with Jackie’s consent, to bring her up as her own.
The marital relationships are sketched throughout from one side only but there is no doubt that both Doris with Jack in 1923 and Margaret with Ken in 1951 confirm completely to the established male/female norms. Doris at 23 has a career as a teacher that seems to be flourishing but Jack says that when they’re married she “…shan’t need to work” and Margaret is going to learn to type because “Ken says it will be useful if we need a second income. Typing’s far more useful [for a girl] than all those stupid school certificates.” She has also decided that she won’t have children but Doris is sceptical. What about the “desire…for little arms reaching up and clinging round your neck?”
In fact neither Doris nor Margaret thought that they would be a great deal more than the child-rearing half of their marriages – and so it proved to be. Careers were either abandoned or not started. “I had a job once too” says Doris. There is a wistfulness to this which is acknowledged when, in 1951, Margaret says “Women did so much during the war; there’s nothing stopping us now”. A premature remark and indeed and for her, as it turns out a sad missed opportunity. The contrast with Jackie twenty years later is clear for she gives up her child not just because she is struggling to cope but because she doesn’t want a distraction to her promising career as an artist. Nor does she want a husband.
Thirty year on from its premiere Charlotte Keatley believes that this play “speaks of very contemporary dilemmas” and this production powerfully, if subtly, makes this point well. Through four generations the constant is love – not “motherly love” in the sentimental Mills and Boon sense but in the deep-seated and gender-driven sense. Yes, as the author says, men could still today do more to “…share the responsibilities” of parenting. But men cannot be mothers and the absence of men in this play, except distantly off stage, suggests that “thank goodness” is the right female response to this fact!
The performances in “My Mother Said I Never Should” are outstanding and if I single out Maureen Lipman’s Doris it is in part to celebrate the astonishing versatility of this truly great actress, her verbal power and her instant feel for character. She has lines which are echoes of Alan Bennett’s middle-class women of a certain age which she delivers with a knowing twinkle and which establish the character of Doris perfectly. Wonderful! The staging is minimalist with few props and with the use of televisions to set dates and remind us of events. We see the suffragettes at one point in relation to Doris’s youth – and that is a stark reminder of how recent is the notion of female emancipation and equality.
It would be over simplistic to call “My Mother Said I Never Should” a feminist play – although, of course, it makes a gentle and not strident case for equality. More it is a play about the seamless transition of society and culture through the distaff line. The male view of the role of women may have modified over time but you only have to see the abuse that some women receive on social media, the presence of the “glass Ceiling” throughout employment, and the dominance of men elsewhere to realise that the battle for genuine equality of opportunity is far from being won.
Review by Paddy Briggs
The most performed play by a female playwright.
“I don’t know if you’ll ever love me as much as I love you but one day you’ll understand why I’ve done this to you.”
Keatley’s award winning play is a moving exploration of the relationships between mothers and daughters and the consequences of breaking the most sacred taboo of motherhood. A play about the choices we make which determine the course of our lives and how it is never too late to change.Doris, born illegitimate in 1900, exchanges her budding teaching career for marriage and motherhood. When the war is over her daughter Margaret marries an American and has Jackie, who becomes an archetypal 60s rebel. When Jackie can’t face being a single mother, it is decided that baby Rosie will be brought up as Margaret’s own. That’s the plan anyway…
National treasure Maureen Lipman (Oklahoma, Outside Edge, See How They Run) and Olivier-award winning Katie Brayben (Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, King Charles III, American Psycho) will lead the cast in Charlotte Keatley’s My Mother Said I Never Should. They will be joined by Caroline Faber (The Taming of the Shrew, The Heiress, Hangover Square) and Serena Manteghi (The Railway Children). Presented by Tiny Fires Ltd. this is the first London revival of the play in over 25 years.
My Mother Said I Never Should
Show Opened: 13th April 2016
Booking Until: 21st May 2016
St James Theatre
12 Palace Street, London, SW1E 5JA