Hailed by many as the greatest play of the 20th Century, Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children is certainly a powerful piece of theatre. This adaptation by Lee Hall (of Billy Elliot fame) drives Brecht's anti-war message home, while leaving space for modern companies to attempt their own take on the play. The story follows Mother Courage and her three children, as they follow the trail of the front-line action of the war through Europe, selling nick-knacks and food to soldiers from both sides as they travel.
Blackeyed Theatre's production really tries to reinvent the piece for a modern audience and, in some ways, succeeds. The action is framed by a thumping soundtrack, sung and played live by the multi-talented cast, and composed by South Hill Park's Ron McAllister.
There are moments of musical brilliance, but some of the songs do fall flat, mainly down to poor sound design and the bad diction of the performers causing almost all lyrics to be lost. A musical highlight is the “Prostitute's song”, sung fantastically and clearly by Georgina Hall, and the power of this section really motivates the action through the following scenes for the whole cast.
The set, designed by the incredible Victoria Spearing, is effective but very static, and not used to its full potential. The scale and feel of the set sometimes swallows the performers, who never fill the space particularly effectively. The projection is a particularly weak element of the design, with random animation and computerised graphics occasionally thrown onto stage, adding very little dramatic effect.
Like the music, the cast has moments of strength, but the weak direction by Tom Neill, and his vague overall vision, restricts them from always hitting the right notes. Janet Greaves takes on the immense challenge of the title role, and is often absolutely astonishing. She is aptly supported by the remainder of the cast – Jacob Addley, JJ Henry, Tristan Pate and Hall.
What is most infuriating though in Blackeyed's production, is that the whole cast goes from being stunning to absolutely dire at the drop of a hat. They manage to change from an energetic and engaging ensemble of five to a directionless gaggle of amateurs in a matter of moments, and this has to be down to Neill's direction.
Mother Courage relies on rhythm and sustained energy, and that's the main thing that is lacking in much of this production. The cast members are all so able, and when working to a clear rhythm and style, bring this play alive. Unfortunately for them, this confused interpretation restricts their flow and progression, and therefore can cause the audience to lose interest for whole sections at a time.
I have no doubt that, as the ensemble heads further into the nationwide tour, the show will improve immensely as they find their own way around it, but – as it stands now – at least half of the piece is thoroughly disappointing.