My Mother Said I Never Should

‘My Mother Said I Never Should’ is a riveting play in two acts by Charlotte Keatley. With an all-female cast, it scrutinises the ever-changing mother-child relationship through five generations, and boldly shows the ‘baggage’ they gather on their journey through life.  

Now in her early 60s, this London born playwright graduated in Drama at Manchester University and then achieved her postgrad at Leeds. Later she worked for the BBC. Charlotte wrote this play at the age of 26; although quite a common age for a writer’s first play, the intense and superbly observed detail of four (even a fifth is briefly mentioned) very diverse generations is amazing. For many late teenagers and youths in their early twenties, going to see Grandma on Sunday can be the low point of the week – actually getting to know her and about her life could be considered a major drag, and boring! Yet Keatley has written this with love and admiration for her characters. Despite her youth, she has skilfully captured and shown how attitudes to topics like birth out-of-wedlock, has changed over the decades.

This ageless play was first staged in 1987, then translated into 22 languages. It has won international awards.

This two-and-a-half-hour production is being presented by one of Western Australia’s longest established and leading theatre companies, the highly respected ‘Playlovers’. Their magnificent version can be seen at the Old Mill Theatre each Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday until the 16th of April. There is one matinée on Sunday 10th at 2.00 pm.

A small warning for the older bladders, the first act is 90-minutes with the second 45 minutes.

The 75% audience rule is still in place, with COVID checks and proof of vaccination.

The Scene:           Several time periods between the 1930 and 1987. The home locations move between Manchester, Oldham, and London. The scenes are mainly chronological with the odd flashback.

The Set Design:                by Alida Chaney. She has created at a waste ground surrounded by a 6-foot high, Irish chain link fence, topped with two lengths of barbed wire. Although it looks like Greenham Common, this fence is not keeping the actors out, but keeping them in – trapped in their own lives. The minimalist set is intentionally idealistic, with the playground, back garden and several home locations permanently on the same stage.

Set builders:                       Alex McLennan – Playlover’s President – and Alida Chaney, with help from Michael McDonald and CAI Fences. The curtains are open. The walls and floor are matt black.

Lighting design and operator:                was by Fiona Reid. With quite a large range of venues on the stage, the superb warm but dim lighting design allows for even small areas to be picked out. The design includes a few footlights, this adds to enforcing the time.

Sound operator:            Although relatively young, Callum Hunter has learnt the tricky skill of the volume fader. So often, even in profession theatres, there can be a clunk as the background comes on too loud or goes off. Here Callum creeps the fader slowly on to an understated level that hints of the location. Even when the scene changes from a quiet location to a noisy one, the volume should initially be 80% of that required, with the extra 20% being faded in over the next two or three seconds; or perhaps the fade was pre-built into the soundsacape by the recording team?

Sound recording:              The complex and most realistic soundscape was compiled and recorded by Trevor Gibson, Alida Cheney and Don Sterling. This trio has assembled a large number of very good sound effects.

Stage manager:                The scene setting was carried out in seconds by the cast. Stage manager, Kat Del Casale had the numerous props in place. Complex work.

Properties:          There were dozens of delightful, memory evoking props.

Programme and front of house cast board photography:                Thanks to Kate Sanders

Production assistant:     Grace Hitchin on the ball.

It is 1905 and four young girls who are roughly the same age, little Doris, Rosie, Jackie and Margaret are singing nursery rhymes and playing gruesome games on a waste ground near their house. These girls are the same characters we are going to meet in the main story.

Strict matriarch Doris (Susan Lynch) was born in 1900 into hard times. Forty years later, her 10-year-old daughter Margaret (Natalie Burbage) sleeps under the piano in case a bomb drops on the house. Margaret must practise her piano pieces; she has very few toys and must help around the house. Doris believes that a strict upbringing is more important than affection. At the age of 21 Margaret has a daughter, Jackie (Emily Howe) and twenty years later Jackie has a beautiful daughter, Rosie (Mary Del Casale).

We are shown how their loves, expectations, and life-choices change over the decades.

The four actors are initially on stage for 90 minutes nonstop. They all have complex interlinked script, which they deliver with aplomb. Sounding like Mrs Bucket’s disowned relatives in ‘Keeping up appearances’ which is also based in Manchester, Doris and Jackie must keep a believable UK Midland’s accent. The other half of the family have an upper-class London accent. The cast must constantly change their body language according to age. Adapt their authority to that of the era. Modify their opinion of their relatives. Go from love to hate.

Susan Lynch wobbles around as the 6-year-old, being picked on by the older members of her gang, two minutes later she is a staid grandmother, Doris. Mary’s part was Rosie, whose age went from 0, with a most convincing baby cry to a modern day 16-year-old with attitude. Poor Natalie was Margaret the fraught daughter who had everything – but did she?

Such was the quality of the acting; not once did you think this is a play. 10 out of 10 to each actor for terrific heartfelt performances, but I must give 12 out of 10 to Emily for her heart-breaking performance given with every cell of her body.

The plain navy blue costumes by Margaret Willison, Nat Burbage and Alida Chaney were deliberately neutral of era, wealth and fashion. Worked beautifully.

Directed by multi-award winning Alida Chaney, who has been acting since she was 11 years old – yes, 10 years! Alide started life in the same part of London, Richmond in the southwest, as this play is partially based. Alida wisely decided to keep the tightness of the family link by having the whole cast constantly on stage. The play’s instructions suggests that they leave when not performing.

In the UK the play was studied as a senior school set text for several years. Although centred around four women, it is NOT a feminist play.

Senior citizens will love every second of this play, as they recall so many happenings and struggles in their own lives. Even young teenagers should see this delightful play, to learn subtly – no teaching – how their recent ancestor lived. They will sit there saying to themselves, ‘nobody really thought that’, or surely parents were never as domineering as being portrayed. Yes, they were, for example as Doris states, the ‘phone calls were expensive and timed!

It is the skilled direction, natural delivery, superb chemistry and wonderful real-life acting that holds the audience in suspense throughout. Even arguments and heart-breaking scenes are presented with perfect pace and supressed body language delivery that allows the audience to be drawn slowly into the situations. Rarely do I get emotional in the theatre, but twice a tear rolled down my face. I hasten to add this is not a depressing play, simply a raw look at life that pushed a few of my buttons. I could name half a dozen families with the Margaret – Jackie relationship.

Whether you are 12 or 90, this is a must-see play. The age groups may perceive two different accounts and so get diverse enjoyment; but it is easy to see why this play was THE major play for a decade, until it was overtaken by ‘The Vagina Monologues’. Faultless.

I gave it a rare standing ovation.