There are three unconnected stories of mothers and daughters in Lisa Evans’ new play, Once We Were Mothers, at the Orange Tree. After the revelatory seasons of suffragist and Edwardian dramas at this address, it feels like a rapid run through the last century to cover the subject “Maternal Instincts, Problems With”.
It also feels like a radio play, through no fault of Ellie Jones’ nicely cast and thoughtful production. Evans is an experienced operator – she has written episodes of EastEnders, Casualty and Holby City on television – but there are no pressure points in her dramatic writing, and no theatrical synthesis in construction.
The maternal trio are Ali (Sarah Mowat), a ballet dancer who has produced a daughter, Flora, with Down’s Syndrome in present-day Richmond; Milena (Mairead Carty), a Muslim in “war-torn” former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, whose family is beset by persecution and poverty; and Kitty (Esther Ruth Elliott), a Yorkshire single mum in the 1950s whose first daughter went missing four years ago.
As the scenes skim past, you feel that all too much is being touched on too briefly. It’s as though Jones has fed a play-making computer with news stories of disabled and missing children, snippets of historical information, and her own interview material (“I spent a fair amount of time in tears and even more laughing,” she says in a programme note) and forgot to edit the result with a governing story.
The liveliest strain is the first one, with Mowat cheerily bouncing off both her spirited, surprising daughter (Sarah Gordy is the second Down’s Syndrome actor to make a big impression this year; Scott Swadkins in Flight Path at the Bush was the first) and her critical, hand-wringing mother (beautifully done by Ishia Bennison).
Kitty’s scenes evoke missing children from the Moors murders through to Madeleine McCann, but at least the writing here in her showdowns with her second daughter (more cheery acting from Pippa Duffy) has a bit of spark. I liked the line about a newborn baby looking like a skinned rabbit in a toupé.
The Yugoslav scenes I found frankly embarrassing, with bad Slavic accents, rolled-up mats representing babies, a peasant wedding – the audience is offered wine and sweetmeats as the lights come up for the interval; well, it’s not the Living Theatre, is it? – and trite reference to inter-family violence.
Tim Meacock’s design has an attractive tree in one corner and Finn Hanlon provides a well observed cameo in each story. But you leave guiltily looking forward to the Orange Tree’s next raids on history with plays from 1909 and 1802 by Elizabeth Baker and Fanny Burney respectively.