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'night, Mother

By Marsha Norman
Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage, London. Until December 4 2021.
Reviewed by Jarlath O’Connell
Published on October 29, 2021
www.hampsteadtheatre.com

'night, Mother Stockard Channing and Rebecca Knight in ’night, Mother PHOTO: MARC BRENNER

Stockard Channing is a proper star in that you can’t take your eyes off her, even when, as here, she’s just making cocoa.

Star of The West Wing, The Good Wife, Grease and so much more, she’s received 7 Tony nominations and has conquered London twice in the past, in the exquisite Six Degrees of Separation and in Apologia. It’s a pleasure to see her return.

Hampstead Theatre supremo Roxana Silbert has brought her back to lead this 1983 American [ahem] classic, which they’ve exhumed for the occasion. I often wondered why this Pulitzer Prize winner never got revived and as a completist I rushed to see it.

Now I know why.

How this play manages to take a melodramatic (and totally unconvincing) idea of a daughter pre-announcing her suicide plans to her elderly mother and render it into 80 minutes as dramatically inert as this, is quite something.

Jessie (Rebecca Knight) is a divorced woman, who lives with her widowed mother somewhere Midwestern and remote (the play has no sense of place). Life has dealt her a tough hand. She’s severely epileptic and suffers regular seizures, has suffered from chronic depression, and has had a failed marriage. The play capably explores the stigma around epilepsy, particularly back then, and the broader issues around female, middle-aged, isolation and loneliness.

Jessie is determined to set everything right for mother by nonchalantly organising all the household chores before she departs. Mother, Thelma, (Channing), cares little for cooking or homemaking and just half believes her. Jessie calmly reveals that she intends to use father’s old revolver, which she’s removed from the attic, to kill herself later that evening, but only after she’s done mother’s manicure. In the subsequent conversations we learn what brought her to this decision.

The flaw in this conceit is that those who carefully plan suicide and coldly tidy up all their affairs (I’ve known some) would never risk telling anyone as that might derail all that careful planning. The play is on a false note from the outset.

Then there’s the dialogue. The characters talk at each other, in turn, explaining what would be obvious. There’s none of the weave of real family conversations, if such naturalism is what Norman was after in the first place. There are no interruptions, no half listening to someone droning on with the same old guff, no martyred looks of resentment, no cryptic sighs of recrimination. In short, no sub-text.

The mother has failed to even notice her daughter’s slow burn despair and is obviously depressed yet, here, she’s smartly dressed as if for a board room. She pulls the pans out of a cupboard to make cocoa (which she hates!) and they’re spotless. Ti Green’s set is artfully perfect but resembles more a showroom for now-chic '70s Danish furniture than the living space for two despairing souls, despite Jessie’s cleaning routine.

Knight manages to elicit our sympathy for Jessie and her pain, but you never really get a sense that she’s fully ready to give up on life. Channing however, falters, as she mines her lines for comedy, when she can find it, but it’s a losing game. Anne Bancroft totally hammed it up in the movie version apparently and here Channing opts for something more subtle, but in the end she is defeated by the piece’s intrinsic lack of psychological authenticity.

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