This play is about women, change, sacrifice and painful growth. In Tiny Fires, with Paul Robinson directing, it has found the perfect company to explore its sprawling non linear structure as it charts the interweaving lives of four generations of women beginning with Doris, born in the 1900s and ending with Rosie, her great grand daughter, born in the 1970s.
Playwright Charlotte Keatley wrote the play aged 25 in 1985, in the decade which saw a push for equal representation of women in the House of Commons, the passing of the Equal Pay Act for women (still not enforced) and Diane Abbott entering parliament as the first black woman MP. It was the time when 30,000 women marched on Greenham Common to protest at planned nuclear arms sites. The play is a reflection of women’s hardships and successes: Doris accepts there is nothing she can do about her loveless marriage to Jack, working mother Margaret can only define herself through her job as a PA to a male boss, and daughter Jackie has overcome the challenges of the 1970s and 80s to set herself up as an artist and business woman. But much of what happens in the play is about looking forward too, beyond even Rosie’s ability to become politically mobilised. The play is nearly ten years ahead of the UK’s first ‘Take our Daughters to Work’ Day (1994), yet Margaret allows Rosie to swing her kites about the office without care.
This hinted at and lived future is like a huge rising tidal wave, a tsunami of thought and feeling. Choreographer Lucy Cullingford’s movement on stage creates this impression. It’s matched by music ranging from parodies of American popular songs “My Mammy” to songs by Nina Simone and Beyoncé’s Run the World. It’s there in Maureen Lipman’s body language as a young Doris as she plays Doctors and Nurses with the others in unrelated childhood scenes. It’s there as unhappy Margaret, played with superb range by Caroline Faber, seems to understand the price she must pay for just about everyone else’s progression. It’s there when Jackie and Rosie are restless spirits eager to pave new paths for themselves. “Let’s kill our mummies” is the first taboo they explore in the childhood scenes. The subtext and set up is: we blame our mummies for the state we are in. The women as girls can’t yet see the invisible patriarchal forces that will entangle them. Then they do, bit by bit, as the years pass. The forces are there in the language and small rituals: Doris parrots her husband Jack and leaves him to say prayers for them both. But Rosie, later, parodies and mocks mens’ ways of speaking in sparky delivery from Serena Manteghi. The production trawls through layers of memory and sentiment giving way to mockery and humour.
It’s a bit like Timothy Bird’s video design, which harks back to the days of VHS. Nine TVs litter the stage as if in an art installation. In the 1970s/ 80s video art was all the rage and women were its chief exponents. Here flickering images of the rally in Hyde Park for women’s right to vote in 1913 gives way to sentimentalised images of cherry blossom and blue skies to more detailed imagery of flowers that seem more cruel, and yet more life-like. How can femininity really be realised? Footage of Mrs Thatcher in a red dinner gown where she appears to mock her dress sense, can be later contrasted with Doris’ choice, after the death of her husband, to put up maroon curtains in her new house after years of bowing to Jack’s wishes. Who is the more free, Mrs Thatcher or Doris? Margaret is left pondering the second taboo: the giving away of one’s child. Not quite a child of the 60s, living in post-war Britain where new values were uncertain, she is left clutching two babies: her’s and her daughter Jackie’s. Keatley is carrying on where Ibsen, in A Doll’s House, left off. But nothing is simple. Margaret finds her identity by bringing up a family and holding down a job, something that is rejected by Jackie. But Katie Brayben as Jackie makes us realise that giving up Rosie was never easy. The whiteness of set designer Signe Beckmann’s stage, with lighting designer Johanna Town’s cold sunlit spaces, can mean something else. It’s how women may feel once the children have left and they only have the office, and are not recognised for their sacrifices.
Still, vitality is at the heart of the play: Simon Slater’s eerie sound warns that change is never far away. Rosie is the endgame. Yet how free is Rosie, when she never really knew the chains that bound others? Her pain is that of not understanding. Doris is the lucky one, who survives Jack and her children and grandchildren’s tribulations, and understands only too well. Maureen Lipman makes the point beautifully and whilst her one liners have the audience rocking with laughter, her body language says it all. At the beginning of the play, she’s all frigid, haughty. At its end, she is a song of herself.
Where does all this end up: Doris whose growing awareness of her life is brought about by the freedoms her granddaughter Jackie can give her, Margaret who never realises how much Rosie loved her, Jackie who will forever live with the guilt of giving Rosie away to Margaret? The answer is in Rosie. What happens to Rosie beyond the play, an interviewer once asked the playwright. “Look around you,” she replied.
My Mother Said I Never Should is on until 21st May 2016 at the St James Theatre. Click here for tickets.