The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Spring 2014; then touring; then Trafalgar Studios Winter 2019-2020
[Note: There were cast changes between London runs.]
Shelagh Delaney's 1958 play is deservedly recognised as a classic and undeservedly too rarely revived. This fine (and long overdue) National Theatre production displays all its strengths, which lie largely in characterisation and attitude, as well as its weaknesses, largely in pacing and plotting.
In a dingy neighbourhood of Salford a 40 year old single mother and her teenage daughter move into the only flat they can afford. Mother soon decamps with her man of the moment, about the time daughter falls in love with a passing sailor boy and is left pregnant. She's tended through her pregnancy by a gay friend, until mother decides to return.
Not a great deal actually happens in the course of the play, the first half devoted to introducing the characters and the second to the mainly non-events of the girl's pregnancy. But what the play presents brilliantly, and frequently through humour, is the energy and spirit of both mother and daughter, along with their capacity for each being her own worst enemy.
Mother is an ageing party girl unable to think past her own gratification, prepared to love her daughter when that role meets her own needs but willing to drop her the minute another pleasure beckons. Daughter is a jumble of adolescent neediness, romanticism and brattiness, who can't help pushing away those she needs at the very moment she needs them most.
They are obviously more alike than either would admit, and the core that they share is a strength and love of life that will carry them through.
Bijan Sheibani's production doesn't conquer the play's inclination to wander about in search of a story, but he does bring out all that is attractive in the characters, and the device of beginning each scene with a bit of dancing reminds us that when they forget to be unhappy both women are capable of real joy.
The play is largely a vehicle for the two actresses. Lesley Sharp bravely doesn't attempt to disguise what a braying monster the mother can be but also shows us an irresistible vitality and a complete lack of self-awareness that partly excuses her, while Kate O'Flynn not only captures all the contradictory passions of the adolescent daughter but makes them all parts of a believable and attractive whole.
The mother's spiv boyfriend is a bit of a cliché that Dean Lennox Kelly can't do much with, and the sweet gay friend is also a stock figure, though one senses that Harry Hepple isn't finding all there is to the character. Eric Kofi Abrefa lets us see the essential niceness of the sailor even as we know he's going to love her and leave her.
Slow down your internal clock, don't wait for big dramatic things to happen, and just enjoy the time spent in these characters' company, and you will find much to make the evening worthwhile.
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