Mum at the Soho Theatre – review

The show is playing to 20 November

Sophie Melville (Nina) and Denise Black (Pearl)
Sophie Melville (Nina) and Denise Black (Pearl)
© The Other Richard

Motherhood… a joyous nightmare, a source of ongoing pain yet unsurpassable fulfilment, a forum where women are judged mercilessly not just by their peers but by any passing bod with an opinion.

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm's tender but brutal new play, an adrenalised fever dream pleading compassion for new mothers struggling to make the perceived grade while also presenting an unflinching picture of their absolute worst fears and their most secret, shameful thoughts made manifest, embraces all of this. It's breathtaking and frequently brilliant. It also doesn't feel finished yet.

Running at little over an hour, this dazzling, ambiguous script takes on so much, too much for a brief duration. There aren't many plays that one wishes were considerably longer, but here is one. I loved it but felt something akin to whiplash by the time it was done.

It centres on new mum Nina (Sophie Melville in a thrilling performance of such manic intensity that you find yourself genuinely wondering how she's going to manage it eight times a week) struggling to cope with a newborn, a barely-there partner, then being patronised by her well meaning mother-in-law and haunted by her own, refreshingly unconventional mother (both women embodied magnificently by Denise Black). It becomes a court room drama, seeing Cat Simmons's beautifully played best friend forced to testify regarding Nina's ability to care for her baby, and a vivid picture of a soul in distress. There are even overtones of a thriller as a chilling evidence emerges of bodily harm to baby Ben. Tartly funny switches to heartrendingly grim in a matter of seconds…

Abigail Graham's fast and furious production is played out under a constantly rotating giant cloud mobile that initially looks comforting but becomes more and more like a mockery of Nina's increasingly fractured state. The staging is embellished with Frantic Assembly-style movement, jagged and raw, by Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster that is highly effective at first but feels overused as the play roars on.

Lloyd Malcolm creates taut, bitterly amusing staccato dialogue that shades subtly into exhilaratingly energised long speeches, arias almost (anybody who saw the final unforgettable moments of the same author's Emilia will know what I mean, although the tone here is very different). The term "mum" is bandied about as an accusation, an exaltation, even a safe word. If the structure and execution is sometimes a little heavy-handed, the writing itself is molten hot.

The three wonderful actresses are fully equal to it: Black is always compelling, and if you can tear your eyes away from the extraordinary, transfixing Melville mid-way through one of her lengthy diatribes, watch the detailed, selfless but illuminating way Simmons listens to her: it's a masterclass of understatement and dramatic intelligence.

Mum is a tremendously ambitious and challenging piece, full of sound and fury but signifying a hell of a lot actually. I hope we get another, fuller version at some point. But in the meantime I would strongly recommend a trip to Soho. Good, strong, female-driven stuff. I just wanted more of it.