Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Loss and Pain Running Through Light Comedy

Wales at Edinburgh Fringe

Be My Baby- Louche Theatre , Morlan Centre, Aberystwyth , April-29-11
Wales at Edinburgh Fringe by Be My Baby- Louche Theatre “Be My Baby” was one of the many plays premiered at the Soho Theatre in the late nineties. Most have passed on but Amanda Whittington’s play has proved to be remarkably resilient. It is playing not just in Aberystwyth this spring weekend but a three-week revival is also underway at Derby’s Theatre. From the evidence of Louche’s tender and unsentimental production it is clear why it has proved to have such sticking power.

The first reason is subject matter. Not much in theatre deals quite so centredly with the bond of mother to child. It has been revealed in celebrity re-unitings that the loss of separation at birth is searing and rarely moves beyond a halfway-healing. Here the script, which begins on a lightly comedic tone, shifts gear dramatically. Sarah Mair Gates’ Norma is movingly thrown into a state of semi-dementia.

Secondly, the play has the fascination of a gaze into a past that is not so far back. In 1964 a mother and daughter do not jump into the household’s second, or even third, car but are hemmed in by bus and train timetables. St Saviour’s Anglican Home is a locked, sealed, phoneless place.

The driving logic that impels the surface harshness of Barbara Hogger’s Matron is correct. Then, as now, true love for a child never comes simply. In this era she knows that the deepest love for a child is surrender to the accountant from Coventry or the childless couple from Devon. She has seen it, she says to Lizzie Hyde’s Mary, whose face is grooved with pain and apprehension. In 1964 to raise a child alone is to be in a room, where the clothes are never dry, and to be dependent “on small change and the pity of friends.”

The script has a light comedy that precedes a descent to pain. In this age before ultrasound Emma Sims’ Dolores has to learn from a manual, to her surprise, that her baby is happily floating upside down. Her face takes on a mix of alarm and semi-disbelief on learning quite how her child is set to make its way into the world.

Thirdly, scripts for women are still relatively uncommon. New writing in the main comes male-oriented. This week Jez Butterworth’s character Johnny Byron is raising a storm in New York. The tributes are justly earned but theatre has a one-sided bias. A woman writer is clearly at the helm here. Julie McNicholl’s tough-minded Queenie might be hooked on the singing of Ronnie Spector but she tells the others a lot of pus and blood is heading their way. Amanda Whittington’s script cleverly uses music of the time to pick painfully at the gulf between the promises of romance and the reality of those who have been abandoned.

There is a truth too in the portrayal of class. Situations of desperation throw people together but class never goes away. Queenie turns down Mary’s offer of her address and a later re-meeting. The same happened in another sixties play with an institutional setting, Peter Nicholls’ “the National Health”

In “Be My Baby” the absence of men is skilfully layered. It is not just the slackness of fidelity in the fathers, Alfie, Jonathan the future doctor, or the married man pushing his unwanted lover towards an illegal abortionist. The elder women too have suffered. Denise Williams’ pained Mother is in a marriage where the shadows of a prisoner of war experience in Burma are unhealed. Matron confesses to a quarter century of loss after a husband was killed at Dunkirk.

John Edwards is stage manager and provider of the early sixties touches, the exactly right portable record player, the as-new-as-it-comes plastic case for Mary’s beloved 45’s. The inmates of St Saviours’ Mother and Baby Home wear pinafores but Caroline Clark has secured a tartan dress, of some period appallingness, for Mary’s arrival.

Director Harry Durnall is his own designer with a split-level set. If the Edinburgh Fringe venue has the same dimensions as the Morlan stage the last foot of the set’s two walls could usefully be sawn off. It would make for marginally more fluid entries. Jojo Engelkamp is on the sound desk managing the music from the Dixie Cups and Ronnettes.

Eighty people turned out on a bright and hot evening for the first night. The venue may be Morlan’s ecumenical centre and Louche the ultimate in a supermarket-bag-filling, self-driven, self-sustaining company. But a river of pain runs through “Be My Baby.” That makes it big theatre indeed.
Adam Somerset

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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