'Night, Mother at the Hampstead Theatre – review

The Pulitzer-winning play returns

Stockard Channing and Rebecca Night
Stockard Channing and Rebecca Night
© Marc Brenner

Marsha Norman's drama about suicide and family relationships won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, which is a reminder of how much tastes in drama have changed.

This slim, soapy offering takes huge themes and reduces them to a duologue between a daughter Jessie (Rebecca Night) and her mother Thelma (Stockard Channing, of West Wing and Grease fame) which minimises their impact and import. In fishing it out of the forgotten bin for a UK return, director Roxana Silbert does it no favours.

In the opening scene, Jessie announces her intention to kill herself by the end of the evening with her dead father's gun. She has bought working bullets for the purpose. Estranged from her husband and her semi-criminal son, she is living with her mother in rural America. Though she has suffered from epilepsy all her life, she isn't ill as such, but she simply doesn't want to go on living. "This is how I say no."

She plans to pass the time before her death with organising mundane tasks for Thelma, filling the jars of sweets, cleaning the fridge, making lists of who she is to contact and what she has to say. But Thelma naturally has other ideas and tries everything she can to make Jessie change her mind, from the practical – "you can't use my towels" – to the metaphysical – "you'll go to hell."

Gradually truths emerge about the lies they have told each other. Thelma, out of shame and guilt has hidden the causes and extent of Jessie's epilepsy; Jessie admits she was prepared to leave both her husband and son to save her marriage. They discuss their feelings about Jessie's father, Thelma's husband. Jessie loved him, Thelma did not.

The dialogue has the odd snappy line, but the trouble is that none of it matters. Neither character nor their predicament come to life – their descriptions of their lives and their arguments ring false. The family just remain sinecures.

This basic lack of detail and texture in the writing, is compounded by the unreality of the production itself. Ti Green's set feels as if it has come from a showroom rather than been lived in, and Silbert's direction adopts a steady onward pace.

The performances too hit one note and stay there for the course of 80-minutes. As Jessie, Night is stubborn and mulish, never quite revealing vulnerability and while Channing makes the most of the funnier lines in the script – particularly the stories of her friend Agnes who has a habit of burning houses down – she doesn't manage to embody the emotion that has to lie beneath this agonised, damaged relationship. Never for a second did I believe in them as mother and daughter

It's an evening that skates along the surface of the depths of human feeling, unengaging and unrevealing. Disappointing.