My Mother Said I Never Should (St James Theatre)

Maureen Lipman stars in Charlotte Keatley’s landmark play about mother-daughter relationships and family secrets

There’s always a certain added pressure for directors taking on landmark plays. And Charlotte Keatley‘s drama about mother-daughter relationships, family secrets and domesticity certainly falls into that category. An instant, award-winning hit when it premiered in 1987, it has since been translated into 23 languages and studied in schools. So, yes, a little pressure.

Director Paul Robinson‘s vision is nothing if not courageous. The set design by Signe Beckmann is minimalist and conceptual: a bare stage littered with old televisions and suggestions of props (three carved wooden legs represent a piano). And the non-naturalistic approach continues in the opening scene, as three young girls push the boundaries of playtime by plotting to kill their mummies. Performing a series of abstract movements – some robotic, some ritualistic – the girls transform from comically misguided children into chilling, witch-like marionettes. Later encounters with the girls are just as twisted, and a mildly menacing score reoccurs throughout the play.

Robinson’s experimental take suits some aspects of the work. The story, which spans 60 years and follows four generations of women from one secret-ridden family, is told non-chronologically, giving it a fittingly dreamlike quality. But Keatley’s script is also beautifully, hilariously, heartbreakingly real. Every nuance of mother-daughter love, confused struggle of youth and cruel trick of old age is weaved into the astoundingly natural dialogue. And a little of this insight (not to mention some of the jokes) are lost among the distraction of the abstract staging.

When scenes are allowed a more traditional take, though, the script shines, as do the talented cast of four. Representing their characters throughout the years, the women shape-shift expertly from fidgety children to stroppy teens to weary adults. Meanwhile, the love, hate, guilt and fear bound up in the complex relationships between them is revealed with the lightest of touches.

Serena Manteghi’s Rosie – the family’s youngest member – has a winning frankness to her, while Katie Brayben is a knot of good intentions and hapless selfishness as her natural mother Jackie. Caroline Faber gives Margaret (Rosie’s grandmother and adoptive mother) a quiet strength that is ever on the brink of shattering. But it is Maureen Lipman who steals the show as matriarch Doris (Margaret’s mother). By turns a bitter widow, distant mother, doting grandmother and cheeky youngster, she treats us to winning one-liners ("Don’t shout, I don’t want the neighbours to think I’m deaf"), stinging insults and devastating monologues, with the easy grace only her kind of experience can produce.

A mention must also go to Timothy Bird’s videos, which play on the television screens. As misogynistic '50s adverts fade into footage of Margaret Thatcher’s speeches, we’re given not only some welcome signposting within the play’s time-hopping, but a reminder of the vastly differing social contexts facing our four heroines. And, sadly, of how little things change.

Twenty-nine years later, Keatley’s work still feels contemporary. But then most landmark plays do.

My Mother Said I Never Should runs at the St James Theatre until 21 May.

Running time: approximately 2 hours 30 minutes, including interval