The production of Mum at the Soho theatre from Morgan Lloyd Malcolm is panic-strewn and nightmarish in every sense of the word. True to its billing, we watch some of the worst things that a parent could imagine happening, all in 70 minutes.
And they crash into each other, as real traumas often do – dominoes of chaos slamming into each other in a way that seems inescapable. The main character Nina’s struggle to cope as a mother slams into an emotional and physical breakdown, slams into the death of her own mother, slams into the room that she sits in which is always cold, slams into the separation of her from her baby forever.
Sophie Melville as Nina is the leading lady in every line, but I am equally held by Denise Black’s dual turn as the generation of mothers removed from Nina, and Cat Simmons’ conflicted calmness as best friend Jackie.
They play on a stage designed by Sarah Beaton which is more of a play pen, a playroom carpet on the floor and a huge nursery mobile rotating above our heads. The suspended Perspex clouds reflecting ally Ferguson’s lighting design so beams of blue light creep across the audience- making me think of ambulance sirens played out silently and in slow motion.
In many ways, and I suspect a combination of intentionally and unintentionally, Mum is quite a frustrating and upsetting play to watch. The sense of being locked in your own head is palpable, the buttons the production is pressing are firing on all pistons, trapping you in that nocturnal, confused and hopeless space of night terrors and heightened anxiety. But it’s always a bit slippery, the courtroom and hospital language is vague, you never understand the sequence of events fully, and it jumps into its most painful point so quickly that I suspect the twist coming from quite a way off.
This might be a specific bugbear of mine, after 100 hours of true crime binging- I get really annoyed at procedural language being misused or not being precise enough because at its worst, it stinks of poor research and also makes it really obvious when you’re doing something because it’s easier for the play (see Gina being the one who is acting as the ‘on duty nurse’ and communicating Baby Ben’s state to Nina, even though she’s not on shift and has been drinking alcohol) and there’s also a way of doing this kind of writing where its detailed ENOUGH to be convincing even if it’s totally inaccurate? But for me, it feels pretty obvious from the beginning that we are in some kind of dream state throughout the whole play, and it makes the whole production lose its stakes and tension if I’m honest, and I’m utterly unsurprised when we snap back to the very first scene at the end, having revealed the whole play was a dark and intrusive thought.
I sit with myself for a little while whilst writing this review however, because it has been almost 48 hours since I saw it now. I can have my bugbears and frustrations but I think the piece will stay with me. Everything about it sits in a place of ambiguity, where time, place and character slide into each other in unsettling manner, so it works on this emotional and gut-instinct level rather than a cerebral one.
And ultimately, how could I possibly understand? I really think I won’t get this play, I won’t understand it on an instinctive level until motherhood happens to me. People, audience members, mothers, will certainly see this piece on stage and see something represented in the depths of themselves, and it should be celebrated for that.
Mum is on at Soho Theatre till 20th November. More info here.