“She called me mother” is both a greeting from a female stranger towards homeless Trinidadian Evangeline at London Bridge Rail Station and an unspoken accusation from Evangeline herself towards her long estranged daughter Shirley. The implied accusation and the meaning of what it means to be a mother underpins the whole of this poetically-charged play by Michelle Inniss as we are left wondering, when Evangeline finally finds the daughter who ran away from the family home on her 16th birthday, whether she ever wanted to have Shirley in the first place and if Shirley can possess enough compassion for her mother to forgive her for her past mistakes.
The familial battleground upon which the mother and daughter’s fractured relationship is fought out is set against the backdrop of exported Trinidadian culture and religion. The island is almost a third character, the emphasis is on the emigres who left the West Indies and came to Britain for a better life, or who were recruited to help run our the transport system, postal service and hospitals. Evangeline and husband Rodney failed to make their lives a success though and Rodney’s rum-soaked disappointment and empty presence haunts the stage as much as he lives in Shirley’s traumatised past. But if the “sins of the father” casts as long and as cold a shadow as the metal cage-like set by Amelia Jane Hankin – a reference perhaps to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – so does Evangeline’s religious puritanism with its catholic drive. Her beliefs save but also damn her, at least in Shirley’s eyes.
In my notes, I had written, rather absentmindedly, “Beware the Jane Eyre complex”. Evangeline was sure she could change her husband Rodney from his erroneous ways – at least initially. Michelle Inniss’ skill is to enable us to see that it is exactly that arrogant belief and zealous urge – coupled with the idea that one “must bear one’s cross”- that allowed and convinced her to stay within such a miserable and disturbed marriage. The audience is allowed to see what Evangeline can’t: that she hates Rodney. But for her to come to that realisation herself? She can’t quite.
Michelle Inniss also skilfully exploits the generational and evolutionary gap which pushes the two women away from each other and pulls them back together again. Shirley refuses to accept, perhaps even understand, her mother’s passivity. But although she can access her inner anarchist much better than Evangeline, she makes almost the same mistakes as her mother, as if it is within her DNA.
As Evangeline, Cathy Tyson taps into a mad volcanic energy that lurks just beneath her restrained surface appearance. She is like a modern version of Jean Rhys’ Jamaican Antoinette Cosway in the Wide Sargasso Sea, her madness seeming not just to come from years spent as a homeless woman, but also from her skewed abusive marriage. In contrast, Chereen Buckley carries none of that cultural heritage or mythology. As Shirley, her surface character implies a different kind of madness, of the kind we are much more used to: silent suffering where “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”(Thoreau). But as Buckley will show us, her adolescent years and past traumas are not buried that deeply.
Whilst Michelle Inniss’ writing is rich with poetical imagery and Trinidadian dialect and showcases a talent for wit and comedy at the most tragic moments (which had some of the audience splitting their sides with laughter) it feels as if Evangeline and Shirley’s confrontations sometimes contain an absence of truth. They shock each other, but what’s really at stake between these two does not seem to quite fulfil its potential onstage. The ending does allow us to see that they narrowly avoid returning to the inertia of the situations they have both come from, but we are left wondering how long for in Cara Nolan’s intensely directed production.