Trafalgar Studios (National Theatre Tour)
Run – Until 29th February 2020
Starring – Gemma Dobson and Jodie Prenger
Director – Bijan Sheibani
Writer – Shelagh Delaney
Designer – Hildegard Bechtler
Run time – 2 hours, 15 minutes
“Women never have young minds. They are born three thousand years old.”
“You need somebody to love you when you’re looking for somebody to love”
Shelagh Deleney wrote this masterpiece of a kitchen sink drama when she was 19 (and here I am, at the same age, writing about her masterpiece – not quite the same but at least I’m trying!) The whole play takes place in a run down, dismal rented room in Salford, complete with grimy kitchen and moth-eaten furnishings (great set by Hildegard Bechtler) We first meet Helen (Jodie Prenger) and her 15 year old daughter Jo (Gemma Dobson) as they arrive to set up home in yet another dreary lodging over-looking a slaughter house. It becomes clear within 5 minutes that mother and daughter share a mutual dislike for each other. The chasm between them, patched up by a tarry of insults, is widened when Helen is whisked away by an alcoholic man with the attraction of an eye patch and slightly more money than Helen possesses. Jo, neglected by her mother, finds herself attached to a black sailor and is soon pregnant and alone. Then Geoffrey appears, the only ray of hope, in Jo’s disappointing existence. As her gay best friend, he cares for her in the rented accommodation through her whole pregnancy. However, Helen returns in Jo’s ninth month. She has been fraught with guilt about leaving her daughter in such a vulnerable state and she banishes Geoffrey. Thereby submitting her daughter to the vicious cycle of loneliness and poverty which Geoffrey may have been able to raise her out of. Jo is now left alone, just as Helen was when pregnant with her.
Bijan Sheibani first directed this piece in 2014 when it was met by excruciatingly average reviews. However, after a complete revamp of the entire production reviewers across the board are not simply content but very impressed. The biggest difference between the productions is the involvement of music. As well as the actors, we have a three-piece band playing music of the period intermittently through the dialogue. This certainly helps the pace of the otherwise stagnant scenes. This stagnation is clearly meant to represent the sluggish nature of Helen and Jo’s lives but it can make for painful watching at times. Even though we have the musical element, the play was a little tedious at times.
However, the marvellous performances made up for slight lack in pace. The show was also completely recast, and Jodie Prenger brings the depressing surroundings to life with her dynamic performance as Helen. How she managed to light up the room while lounging on sofa for ten minutes is beyond me. Her gumption and sheer ignorance of her and her daughter’s situation in society verges on impressive until you realise that her complete disregard for practicality is what has kept the two on this lifelong ride of financial difficulty.
One slight annoyance must be mentioned– the constant smoking of fake cigarettes. Either do it properly or don’t do it at all! I was so distracted by the actors looking childish puffing away on what might as well have been pencils that I missed chunks of dialogue.
It is very rare to find two equally strong leads in a play of this length but Gemma Dobson certainly does Jo, Helen’s volatile and whimsical daughter, justice. She is defiant to her mother but yet upstaged in her presence, this is physically represented by their positions on stage. However, when Helen leaves to live with her one-eyed lover, we see a new Jo shining through. Dobson manages to demonstrate Jo’s lack of intelligence but also her unusual (in her circumstances) desire to live a life different to the one she has been lumped with by her capricious mother. This new Jo makes friends with Geoffrey, a gay man, willing to help her through her pregnancy (she has been abandoned by her black sailor fiancée). This relationship is beautifully crafted as the audience can completely sympathise with Geoffrey’s internal conflict of needing to leave and yet not wanting Jo to be alone.
The play indirectly grapples with themes of motherhood, abortion and homosexuality in the 1950s, but I would argue that the production is more successful at simply providing a snapshot of reality: real people living real lives in a credible yet shocking way. Warning: you will find yourself waiting for something to happen for 2 hours and walk out not really knowing what you’ve learnt. But yet I am still finding myself thinking about this well-crafted piece of nothingness a week later.