Goodnight Children Everywhere, RSC at The Pit
Richard Nelson s play takes as its central theme dislocation. The story concerns a young man named Pete who, having been evacuated to Canada, returns to his three sisters at the end of the second world war. Both of their parents are dead and one of his sisters is now married to a much older man. This is a strange world for us as the audience: a world where sexual matters are not much spoken about, where there are twice as many women as men and where the characters have had their childhood interrupted and can't seem to decide on adolescence or adulthood.
Goodnight Children Everywhere has been described as Chekhovian, but that seems to be nothing more than shorthand for saying that there are three sisters in the play. Certainly, if Chekhov ever had a scene where a sister masturbated her brother in the bath, then I missed it. A far more apt parallel is with Dennis Potter: there is the same nostalgia for the (seeming) cosiness of childhood, the same obsession with sex, and particularly sexual frustration, and the same use of popular songs to emphasise the text. Even the title is taken from the words of a particularly mawkish ballad.
Director Ian Brown has succeeded in emphasising the confusion of roles felt by all the participants. Pete is unsure whether to be brother, father or lover to his sisters; Ann feels she's little more than a child herself but is soon to be a mother; Betty has been a mother figure for too long and yearns to be a lover; and Vi still wants to act like a little girl, even though she is the most knowing about sex.
Where the play doesn't work is in the behaviour of some of the characters. It's just not conceivable that a young woman would remove her blouse and bra in front of her brother and brother-in-law. And would a woman in 1945 really carry condoms around with her? Most bizarrely of all - what happened to the war? We re told the action is in May 1945 and yet none of the VE day celebrations seem to affect this family. The real questions that Nelson is addressing aren't questions from the forties at all, but rather ones concerning modern women, the nature of families, childhood sexuality and incest - matters very much with us today.
The women's roles are much meatier than the men's and Cathryn Bradshaw portrays the contradictory aspects of Ann extremely well. Even better is Sara Markland s Betty, an engaging woman torn between family duty and the urge to grasp life while she can. The men decidedly play second fiddle here, but Colin McCormack s Mike is a perfect blend of stuffiness, lechery and emotional dullness.
Goodnight Children Everywhere is not a great play, but it is a thought-provoking one and well worth catching. Take note, though - you might not look at your siblings in quite the same light afterwards.