Pros: A bright script, with some sparkling one liners and an excellent cast, led by the redoubtable Maureen Lipman.
Cons: Although it pays tribute to the strength and stoicism of women, the story doesn’t really pick up the equality issues to which it frequently alludes.
Before watching My Mother Said I Never Should, ever the history buff, I was drawn to the programme notes and a timeline entitled ‘100 years of progress’. Major developments in women’s rights were listed, from the Suffragettes’ formation in 1903, to laws allowing women to retire at the same age as men in 1986. A Q&A with Charlotte Keatley also examined the role of female playwrights in the theatre. I expected a politically charged production; but what we actually got was a sensitive, funny and beautifully written story about mothers and daughters. It was no less fulfilling or entertaining, but largely overlooked the issues hinted at in the programme.
TV monitors on stage put the play into historical context; the lights dim as they fire up, showing grainy, sepia-like images of the Suffragettes. Four women take the stage, child-like, and chant a nursery rhyme: ‘My mother said I never should play with the gypsies in the wood. If I did, she would say: “naughty girl to disobey!”’
So, do daughters ever do what their mothers tell them? In the next two and half hours, we find out as four generations of women live, fight, argue and laugh together. The wonderful Maureen Lipman plays family matriarch, Doris; Caroline Faber takes on the role of daughter Margaret; while Katie Brayben plays granddaughter Jackie and Serena Manteghi is great-granddaughter Rosie.
The monitors light up again and we are in 1940 during the blitz. Doris and Margaret are sheltering under a piano during a raid. We quickly jump forward to 1961, and the dawn of the swinging 60s; Jackie has arrived and in full annoying teenager mode. A flashback to the 40s is followed by a flash forward to 1969 and then 1971, with Margaret despairing at Jackie’s bedsit lifestyle and pregnancy.
The story finally alights in 1987 and images of the Thatcher years jump out of the monitors (did she ever do anything for the sisterhood?). By now, the cute, inquisitive Rosie has appeared on the scene and Jackie now runs an art gallery; Margaret is toiling away as a PA while Doris reclines in retirement.
The story has great symmetry and does show how a woman’s role has developed through successive generations – Doris was a housewife; Margaret a PA and Jackie has an art gallery – but it doesn’t necessarily engage in the social changes that occurred in the period covered by the play. Doris was the same age as the Queen Mother, which means she would have been born around 1900. She would have remembered both world wars and women being given the vote, but there was no reference to these events in the script.
This small issue aside, My Mother Said I Never Should was a thoroughly enjoyable production with an extraordinarily good cast. Maureen Lipman must surely be a pleasure and a devil to act with, gently and quietly running away with every scene in which she appears. Talk about star quality!
Author: Charlotte Keatley
Director: Paul Robinson
Producer: Tiny Fires Limited
Box Office: 0844 264 2140
Booking link: https://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk/book-tickets/?event=28539
Booking until: 21 May 2016