Mom, How Did You Meet The Beatles? at Chichester Festival Theatre – review

Adrienne Kennedy’s autobiographical piece continues at the Minerva Theatre until 8 July

An actress stands alone on stage in front of a projection of herself on the wall behind
Rakie Ayola in Mom, How Did You Meet The Beatles? at Chichester Festival Theatre, © The Other Richard

American playwright, Adrienne Kennedy, may not exactly be a household name in this country, but her story is an intriguing one and the particular chapter of her life that’s covered in hers and her son’s verbatim play is fascinatingly ensconced in British popular culture and in the devilish and apparently cutthroat world of 1960s theatreland.

Kennedy was commissioned to write a new play in New York following the premiere of her first work, Funnyhouse of a Negro. She chose to adapt John Lennon’s In His Own Write, a collection of nonsense poems, prose and illustrations. With only limited funds but a spirited determination, Kennedy and her young son, Adam, made their way to England in order to seek the relevant permissions to get the project off the ground.

Armed with a letter of recommendation and a list of theatrical contacts in her pocket, Kennedy made sure that she made the most of each and every name on the list. An endless sprinkling of lucky chances and coincidences lead to Kennedy not only meeting The Beatles, but also her theatrical idol, Sir Laurence Olivier. With Kenneth Tynan spearheading the work that she was doing in adapting Lennon’s book, it was quickly slotted into a season at Olivier’s National Theatre, which is where Kennedy’s story is derailed in brutal fashion as she is savagely removed from the project at the last minute.

Son Adam is the interviewer, both in real life as well as depicted here in Diyan Zora’s stylishly filmic production. Uttering perhaps just a dozen or so lines within the 75-minute one-act piece, Adam (Jack Benjamin) asks a handful of pertinent questions. Adrienne lyrically answers in careful, name-dropping detail as she explains her version of events. James Earl Jones, Donald Sutherland, the Burtons and George Martin all get a mention along with Olivier, Tynan and of course all of the Fab Four.

Rakie Ayola brilliantly and subtly inhabits Kennedy. There is a warmth and easy conversational style to how she deftly manoeuvres her way through the verbatim prose as given by Kennedy herself. There is nothing showy about Ayola’s performance and she manages to capture the essence of a woman simply telling her own story. Her descriptions of The Beatles – George (crumpled and intellectual), John (skinny with granny glasses) and Paul (he just looked like Paul McCartney) are all wonderfully understated, whilst her God-like idolising of Olivier is quite the opposite – “running the National Theatre is like running England” she says of the man that would go on to snub her, yet would also hold her hand during the premiere of the play that was taken away from her.

The problem comes with a simple lack of theatricality about any of what we are witnessing. It’s a nicely paced monologue that tells a story of relative interest, but it lacks the emotional variation needed to fully grip. Kennedy is so philosophically calm about events that you urge for a little anger. The battles she faced as a Black woman working in a male-dominated world are skated over so quickly that they’re easy to miss. It’s gentle and inoffensive but it subsequently lacks drama and drive because of that.

A 20-minute film is shown afterwards that gives context to events, along with interviews from Kennedy herself as well as her son. It finally adds the much-needed colour to an otherwise somewhat inert evening – albeit one that is superbly acted.