MOTHERHOOD, SECRETS AND LIES
Neatly in time for International Women’s Day and the celebratory WOW-ings on the South Bank, John Terry has had Chipping Norton’s gorgeous galleried interior temporarily reconfigured in the round for a 30th anniversary revival of Charlotte Keatley’s modern classic. Tracking four generations of 20c women from the 1930’s to the late 1980’s, it’s a lovely intimate staging: birdsong and washing-lines and moody piano, and deft unfussy costume-changes as the four actresses dodge around the decades, backwards and forwards. And, occasionally, step out of time to become their child selves – as if they were contemporaries, little girls playing in a ‘waste ground’.
A device which, for a good while, I couldn’t quite bond with: it felt too self-consciously theatrical, and the actual narrative is so strong that at times the brief interruptions can irritate. But looking back, the device has its reasons; not least because the little girls are not sugar and spice but realistically crude and credible, well into mutual blackmail, play-violent fantasies and amateur witchcraft. Maybe it’s a necessary grit to keep the tale from soapiness.
Sue McCormick is a splendid, majestic big Doris as the grandmother, in brisk middle-age as a wartime mother and formidably amiable when in later years she reflects on as ixty-year marriage in which “we never liked each other much” and on the way that “When you’re old and you’re rude they think you’re losing their mind. They never know it’s anger!”. Zara Ramm is her daughter Margaret, growing up proudly postwar to expect to work, but finding only secretarial obedience and compromise. Her own daughter Jackie (Jessica Guise) is a sixties kid demanding more and getting it, but still unable to handle single motherhood and reluctantly handing over her baby to Margaret, with the hateful convention of the day which made her a pretend “big sister”.
Both are delicate, touching, subtle performances, treating the difference of age and era adeptly. The hardest job perhaps goes to Charlotte Croft as Rosie, because we see her only between the ages of ten and sixteen, largely bratty and eventually unforgiving of her real mother. Despite the older women’s vast obvious affection she has a hard time being likeable. But it’s a lively performance, and maybe the obnoxiousness is necessary for credibility. Anyway, altogether this absorbing evening captures perfectly many things most women will recognize; the half-needy, half-resentful maternal bond, the preciousness of objects and ideas handed down, the bafflement of each generation at the next one’s freedoms. And the moment of the rabbit-decorated baby dress is electric: a dangerous secret hovering behind a domestic banality. Wonderfully played.