Oh Mother at HOME Manchester – review
The RashDash production runs until 28 May
Having previously explored Chekhov's Three Sisters in one of their last shows, RashDash now turn to mothers. Rather than straightforwardly glorifying them, their three-person show gambols through accounts and experiences sympathising with maternal doubt in both becoming and being a mother. It complicates the narrative of a feat of honour and heroism, but their typically eclectic multi-modal style overcomplicates the production itself.
Like a mother embarrassed by the state of the house in front of guests, their opening apologises to the audience for the delay in tidying the stage. The curtain falls on a domestic battlefield strewn with the baby detritus of soiled nappies and scattered toys. Oli Townsend's mirror-finish set opposes the gloss, polish and sheen of idealised motherhood against the filth, mess and disarray. The gold is peeling off the lettering of ‘BABY' in big bright lights — that constant calling for women, dominating their lives once one arrives.
They begin in Roman costumes with ornate headdresses invoking classical images of the worshipped mother figure, before the elegance quickly descends into a "manic tornado". The frantic movement and breathless monologues inject the pace of life, rushing and dashing through the acrobatic act of marshalling chaos, against the juxtaposing melodic grandness of Simone Seales' classical cello compositions. It captures the theatricality of being a mother: the heightened drama of volatility and emotional extremes, the playing up a persona, the performance for the child and the social world. The babies are spray-painted gold like precious trophies.
The performers' movement portrays the central question of whether child-rearing is binding or liberating. The need and attachment is communicated through carrying, balancing and leaning. The cast switch between the parent and child characters to stress their mutual codependency. Abbi Greenland also speaks both sides of the conversation between a mother and a friend debating the virtues and value of motherhood, embattled by the woman's binaristic choice between fulfilling the socially predetermined duty or not. The switching also reminds us that these are roles we play, with the child sometimes finding themselves parenting the adult, as in Seales resisting their mother's antiquated gender views.
The actors also interrupt each other's dialogue, butting in and over each other like a child's demands on their mother's attention. They walk on their hands to suggest toddler crawls, or sit with dangling legs to suggest an inquisitive sibling. The slow physical theatre sequences aren't visually arresting, but their gentleness depicts the everyday gymnastics of motherhood.
However, the piece struggles with its own balancing act. It's peppered with overstuffed scenes and stylistics that are too kaleidoscopic and idiosyncratic. Conversations are half-masked behind a translucent curtain, while a tender lullaby about the loss of a baby is performed from inside a closed washing machine. A song about the unease of raising boys which could grow to endanger women like themselves, feels too weighty and complex a subject to mention so fleetingly. Personifying their own genitalia as a rakish Don Giovanni, demanding to reproduce, feels crass, but conveys the way you can feel harried by the expectation your own body carries.
It scrambles to say everything it can, scattering varying versions and observations of motherhood with little definition. It also needs more of the depth from the loss of a child, both to death and to adulthood. And for all its many abstract storytelling approaches, it still resorts to the plainly didactic, breaking into meta moments where they simply tell us their own opinions or admit to their script's shortcomings. The montage of motherhood spreads itself across so much ground, at least some of it will resonate, but it's like a child's bedroom, needing a disciplined, focused mother's touch to help you navigate it.