Wrapped up in one 80-minute stint, ‘night, Mother returns to Hampstead Theatre as part of their ‘Originals’ season. Directed by Roxana Silbert, this performance of Marsha Norman’s enthralling play maintains a heady rhythm, despite missing a few beats.
Over one evening, in one house, a mother-daughter duo play a high-stakes game of verbal tennis. Jessie—an epileptic woman wrought with loneliness—serves the first ball to her mother, Thelma, when she announces her evening plans: “I’m going to kill myself, Mama”. The back-and-forths that ensue take us through the connected lives of two women, stained with tragedy. The parental role changes hands every ten minutes, with each trying to bargain with the other, care for the other, and plan for life or death. Norman’s play captures suicide, domesticity and motherhood in such a stark light, all laced together in an exceptional scenario. Within the tangle of bribing, begging and crying, the play makes you consider: How would you really react?
But, at times the performance just lacks vigour; the potency of Norman’s writing loses some of its sting and her themes are somewhat diminished. Stockard Channing (as Thelma) is a delight to watch, taking subtle command of the setting around her—a detailed kitchen-stroke-lounge with all the homely trimmings, designed by Ti Green. Channing performs some of the play’s livelier moments well, throwing pots and pans in desperation and panic, in the face of her daughter’s cold determination. However, the chemistry between the two actors falters a little too often, and the dialogue (though interesting) becomes one-note. Rebecca Night (as Jessie) bares down on a steely tone, which means that moments of revelation, about her estranged husband and troublesome childhood, are left without much force.
Visually, there is always something to engage with; the pair seem primed for action, moving about and interacting with their surroundings. The initially worrying sight of a prop clock on-stage, which risks the audience counting down the minutes of the play in real-time, wasn’t an issue in the end. Praise must be given for Silbert’s direction here, as the overall energy of the performance doesn’t drop off—we hardly stop to look at the clock.
Each exchange between mother and daughter builds great momentum, although they mostly reach an impasse. A breaking point or two goes amiss, until the swift ending. The actors shine and the tension finally breaches in moments of close proximity—when the pair sit side-by-side—and pauses for silence.
Thanks to its stimulating premise, content and action, ‘night, Mother is in no way tedious. Its shortcomings are simply a lack of oomph.
‘night, Mother is showing at Hampstead Theatre until 4 December.
Words by Jessica Saunders
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