Reviews of My Mother Said I Never Should

“This is a landmark play. The theatrical equivalent of breaking the four-minute mile.” – The Guardian

“The play . . . shows how many generations it takes to learn how to love” –Sunday Times

“In its revelation of mother-daughter emotions over the years, the play is without rivals. It is a classic.” –  The Times

The Observer, 19th April 2016

Fingersmiths theatre company specialises in “ways of presenting theatre which previously have not been available to deaf audiences in their own language”. In its new co-production with Sheffield Theatres, the troupe performs Charlotte Keatley’s 1987 classic using varying combinations of British sign language, quasi-mime gestures, spoken words, silently mouthed words, voiceover and surtitles (projected on to a kite-shaped screen, incorporated into Sophia Lovell Smith’s multipurpose set). The result is both thrilling and frustrating.

Set in Manchester, Oldham and London, Keatley’s action spans 1923 to 1987, following threads of entanglement and estrangement that bind together four generations of one family.

Years are shuffled into an emotional rather than chronological order as Doris, her daughter, Margaret, Margaret’s daughter, Jackie, and Jackie’s daughter, Rosie, struggle to reconcile competing personal and social constructs of motherhood, marriage, work and self-expression. Interspersed are scenes of the four playing together as young girls.

This demanding combination of complex construction and intricate presentational style needs crisp handling if the audience is to follow the plot and engage with the characters (well drawn by the ensemble, with special mention to Jude Mahon’s uptight Margaret and EJ Raymond’s guilt-ridden Jackie). At times, here, the multiple forms of communication are made to overlap in ways that seem more schematic than dramatic, and not enough thought has been given to clarity of enunciation – physical and vocal. This is the frustrating aspect of the production.

When everything meshes, though, we become so involved in the women’s lives we no longer notice the innovative means of delivery. This is what makes it thrilling.

Fiona Mountford, Standard Online, 19th April 2016

Why on earth has My Mother Said not been revived in London since its 1989 Royal Court debut? Charlotte Keatley’s drama is, after all, no small matter: it’s the most performed play ever by a female playwright. Whisper it softly so the patriarchy doesn’t hear, but could it be that this witty and moving examination of four generations of women in one family is somehow considered less resonant and universal than would be the same piece about four generations of men?

Whatever the reason, let’s celebrate Paul Robinson’s fine revival, which has assembled a cracking quartet of actresses, not least a never-better Maureen Lipman putting her dry humour to superb use. Lipman’s Doris morphs gradually from an emotionally distant mother of the Forties to a much more amenable great-grandmother to Rosie (a lovely performance of wide-eyed enthusiasm from Serena Manteghi). Livewire Katie Brayben, as Doris’s granddaughter Jackie, confirms the tremendous promise of her work in the musical Beautiful last year.

The script initially skips playfully about through the decades, underscoring the repeated tug of dreams versus reality, career versus motherhood down the generations. Keatley notes with rueful tenderness how the best of intentions aren’t always enough, as maternal lines of communication get so easily tangled with deep-seated consequences for all parties. A real treat.

Mark Fisher, Guardian, 30th May 2019

Charlotte Keatley has an acute ear for the way mothers talk to daughters – and how daughters respond. Straddling four generations, yet structured as if time doesn’t exist, My Mother Said I Never Should is brilliant in its observational detail. It captures every subtextual nuance in the conversations of those mothers who can’t stop parenting and the children who can’t stop answering back.

But what her 1987 play also shows is how we are all products of historical circumstance. It isn’t temperament that embitters a woman who sacrificed everything to survive the war; nor is it a personality quirk that confounds a woman who was brought up to be a housewife when economics compel her to get a job. Their experiences made them that way.
As she dances between the original age of austerity and the era of the pill, Keatley shows how everyone is shaped by the social attitudes and expectations they grow up with. Rather than condemning the values of the past, the play is a gesture of empathy, which recognises that the damage one generation does to the next is rarely intentional and nearly always a product of the times.

What’s great about Katie Posner’s studio production is that it neither judges nor indulges the women. The director plays against any tendency towards nostalgia or whimsy, favouring a brisk, fluid and unsentimental approach that is no less humane for it. On Elizabeth Wright’s set, which melts into the past in the same dreamy way as the play itself, Maggie O’Brien, Asha Kingsley, Emily Pithon and Georgina Ambrey are a superb ensemble, switching between the abandon of childhood and the burden of adulthood with transformative ease.

Paul Vale, The Stage, 20th April 2016

Charlotte Keatley’s My Mother Said I Never Should originally opened in Manchester in 1987 to great critical acclaim and while it may be the most performed play ever by a female playwright, this is still the first significant London revival in 27 years.  Signe Beckman’s set design frees the stage of the clutter that could represent its 40 year time span in favour of clean lines and television sets that conveniently flash up the non-linear time frame, along with footage showing the role of women through the decades.

The play remains a remarkable debut work, exploring the role of women in a family via the secrets they share through generations – or more significantly, the ones that remain buried. The dominant tension in the drama is that Rosie’s sister Jackie is in fact her mother. Soap operas may well have played this theme to death, but Keatley’s delicate tapestry of family life cautiously unfolds to reveal a repeated pattern of aspiration and disenchantment.

Paul Robinson’s thoughtful production even manages to make the hackneyed device of adults playing kids seem fresh but plaudits here must go to the cast. Maureen Lipman demonstrates her innate versatility as an actor, slipping effortlessly between ages while retaining the emotional  integrity of the unfulfilled matriarch Doris. Caroline Faber, as Margaret, and Katie Brayben, as Jackie, capture with precision the unspoken resentment between mother and daughter and Serena Manteghi is suitably animated as the industrious, socially aware Rosie. This a long overdue revival a work of lasting power.

Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times Online, 19th April 2016

My vague memories from seeing Charlotte Keatley’s play on its 1989 London premiere were that it never really moved past the general description “about women” to explore issues of sexism, attainment or the like. I was partly right, but much more wrong. It is true that Keatley is engaged more in observation than in arguing: she presents a picture of four generations of women from the 1940s to the 1980s, not a thesis about their lives. Nevertheless, it is a complex and sensitive piece about keeping secrets and the consequences thereof, and principally about the interference patterns of motherhood and personal independence. It is summed up by one character: “You do what you think is right for your daughter, and you find it’s not what she wanted or needed.” This revival by Paul Robinson (about to move from Battersea’s Theatre503 to take up the artistic directorship of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough) is initially deceptive. It begins with a scene in which all four characters come together as a fantasy pre-teen gang; not only can I not see Keatley’s point in writing these occasional scenes, but the first impression is that childhood equals shouty. When we move into the principal dramatic territory, however, things improve out of all recognition. Maureen Lipman leads with the wry understatement she furnishes so well as grandmother Doris. Katie Brayben sells her character Jackie’s genuine belief that her central, shattering decision is taken from a spirit of altruism, even though we may see it otherwise. This is the resolution to give her own daughter Rosie to be brought up as her sister, keeping her actual parentage secret. Serena Manteghi remains a bit strident as Rosie, but this is entirely in character. The most modest, and in many ways the most potent, performance is that of Caroline Faber as Margaret, Doris’s daughter, Jackie’s actual and Rosie’s surrogate mother. Keatley, Robinson and cast ensure that what could have been little more than spats and sententiousness emerges as a fabric of difficult but essentially loving and giving relationships.