My Mother Said I Never Should is a deeply problematic play. Add that to the issues inherent with mounting a school production and you’ve got a match made in hell. Or not, as I found out on Tuesday night as I was drawn into the RHS Players’ emotionally cutting performance at The Royal High School in Bath. It’s not that it was smooth or well produced. It’s not that it was a tight superlative production of a difficult post feminist 80’s play. But it was full of integrity and raw talent, something not often seen on most professional stages.
It’s quite perturbing to see a play about difficult mother / daughter relationships if one of the actresses is your mother. And so this cannot be an impartial review, and I flag it up as no such thing right now. Rather this is a train of thought on a piece that, although magnificently rough around the edges, hit the gut when it mattered.
My Mother Said I Never Should is a strange play, with Charlotte Keatley placing herself somewhere in-between social realism and the surrealism of Caryl Churchill. Charting a family of women that spans the 20th Century she intersperses their chronological encounters with ‘wasteland’ scenes where all the characters are children. In Ben Pender’s production this is cleverly shown as the interior of a circle of sand, a clean line which is muddied and scattered as the performance progresses. But whilst these scenes inject some much needed energy into this play (and on a stand alone basis are some of the funniest and best) they do not sit comfortably with the increasingly saggy realistic moments that encase them. Keatley can’t seem to make up her mind and becomes stuck between a rock and a hard place, neither one thing nor another.
It is a meaty four hander however and with each of the parts as challenging as the rest it is a veritable treat for the four performers to get their teeth into. With the sheer amount of people involved in a school production, it is sadly sometimes the case that they end up being heavily choreographed pieces of stage craft and little else. But with the RHS Players the highest dramatic scholars in their school have been given the chance to work professionally.
And so we have four talented performers, with the opportunity to work in a collaborative way. Tabitha Cox, Rhiannon Neads, Eleanor Osborne and Katharine Bayes do not disappoint. There may not be an audience of hundreds but this is an important event that everyone in the room seems to tangibly feel. Untrained but truthful, this casts’ emotional commitment and empathy is palpable. To work in such a concentrated fashion with only the best is something that drama schools make you pay thousands for. But here this company are doing it for free as part of a level of pedagogy that would shame a lot of Stagecoach schools.
It’s not perfect; indeed at times it sags and feels too tentative. The actresses don’t always play off each other naturally and at points the elongated set changes become embarrassing. In fact if there is something to be learnt from this, it is that smooth technical production is as important as artistry. But on the whole this old, outdate play has been given a cracking re-birth in this earnest production.
The probing Q&A session at the end validates the supposition that this is a ‘workshop’ performance. It gives a chance to these talented performers, whether they be Year 11 girls or mid 50 year old women, to discuss and quantify their own artistic process. It seemed to be added on as a somewhat nervous appendage but it really is worth the time spent and should become an advertised part of this evening in the RHS Players’ future repertoire.
It is fantastic to know that great work can be done as well in the school room as on the Olivier stage; school boards or no, this is a brave and poignant night at the theatre.