Charlotte’s Keating’s play about four women in one family is now over 20 years old. The original Manchester production for Contact Theatre was by Brigid Larmour, now the artistic director of Watford’s Palace Theatre, who has taken a fresh look at the script for this new staging. It’s a long play (by 21st century standards), though the shifts in time and place don’t necessarily faze a modern audience. The teenagers at the opening performance related to the characters with the same startled recognition as, by all accounts, did their predecessors.
The core character is Margaret, a wife and mother caught on the cusp of two conflicting attitudes to the social and professional place of women. Her own mother – Doris – has subsided more or less gracefully from enthusiastic teacher and amateur pianist to being the wife of a self-made businessman. Margaret’s daughter – Jackie – wants it all, grasps at some of it, but there’s a price to pay. And there’s Rosie, with a puzzle, or two, to solve.
has designed a set which is mainly walls and with minimal furnishings. Within these confines the four actresses step from past to present, from playground fantasy to adult realities, from the ease of childhood to the pains of maturity. There’s a touch too obtrusive stage management, not to mention a tension-cutting use of a front gauze at one point, and not all the exchanges and speeches are sufficiently projected.
That apart it’s a very moving experience and extremely well acted. Abigail Thaw has the measure of Margaret in all her self-imposed restraint, frustrated in so many ways and then dragged into a deception engineered by her own daughter. Her story has no happy ending, just a final pain. Jackie gives Claire Brown many opportunities – from the idealistic art student to the successful gallery owner – and she takes full possession of them all.
The two extremes of age and experience are presented through Eve Pearce as Doris and Katherine Manners as Rosie. You can see why the grandmother (even great-grandmother) can have a stronger bond with a much younger generation than with the intermediate one. Pearce brings alive a generation which just accepted life as it stands, and got on with it while Manners is thoroughly credible as the stroppy teenager with a need to change the world and the intensity to (perhaps) make that happen.
Avoiding stereotypes and clichés has been the avowed aim of both writer and director. In that this cast succeeds. The ethos of the play can be summed up in two quotations: “You hate dead things, not old things” and “No need to snap, dear”. Family tolerance can, thank heaven, stretch beyond its apparent breaking-point.