‘My mother said I never should, play with gypsies in the woods. If I did, she would say, ‘naughty girls to disobey”.
Charlotte Keatley’s play is a powerful depiction of women’s lives throughout the twentieth-century, told through a non-linear narrative that spans four generations of the same family. It is a play that holds a lot of memories for me, as I played the role of Rosie when I was in college. Set in Manchester, Oldham, and London, there is a special poignancy to seeing this play performed at Oldham’s Coliseum theatre.
My Mother Said I Never Should is not a comfortable play to watch. It pulls no punches in rendering harsh realities apparent in the relationships between mothers and daughters. From the overwhelming pressure of expectations, to poverty, miscarriage and teenage pregnancy, its domestic realism lends the play a bleak, dark tone. Despite this, there is an uplifting quality to Keatley’s play that explains its enduring appeal to theatre makers, audiences, and actors alike.
Because the play’s narrative spans nearly a century, it highlights the radical changes that have impacted women across the twentieth-century. Beginning with the eldest female generation being forced to abandon their hopes and dreams to become domesticated housewives, the play progresses to depict the independence and freedom granted to women in the latter half of the century. As starting a family is replaced with having a successful career, My Mother Said I Never Should starkly exposes the consequences of these changes.
The non-linear structure of the play’s narrative can cause the play to become confusing at times, as the characters relive their childhood selves. All four generations of girls play childhood games together. Scenes that are juxtaposed with their adult lives.
Luckily, in this production, the confusion is avoided by Bek Palmer’s inspired costume design, which efficiently denotes when characters switch between incarnations. Palmer’s costumes provide an impressive, visually kaleidoscopic timeline showing the evolution of women’s fashion across the twentieth-century.
The four lead actresses all give strong performances, effortlessly switching between their older and younger selves, by subtly changing their vocal tones and mannerisms. Each character is granted their own poignant monologue, which are exquisitely performed. These days, it is refreshing to see a play with such strong female roles, each played by incredibly experienced and talented actors.
Sadly, I feel that the set design lets this play down. A wasteland is created out of discarded everyday objects. It is a concept that works incredibly well for the scenes where the girls play their childish games. A steel fence, with razor wire, marks the perimeter of their desolate playground. However, in the scenes depicting the adult lives, this odd scrapyard is a distraction from the brutal realities faced by the women. Pushing the boundaries of believability, it simply doesn’t match the severity of Keatley’s play. Perhaps it is a metaphor for broken dreams… Yet, if symbolic, the set’s significance disappointingly remains unclear.