Magazine article The Spectator

Mothers from Hell

Magazine article The Spectator

Mothers from Hell

Article excerpt

If 1999 carries on the way it has started, theatrically this new year is going to be a tough one for the male of the species; five of them turn up in the first two plays of the season, Liz Lochhead's Perfect Days and Shelagh Stephenson's The Memory of Water, and all are a complete and utter waste of space.

In that sense, I guess both new productions are `women's plays', but intriguingly neither is any kind of feminist tract; both are written within well-defined comic guidelines, both are traditionally wellmade, and both are clearly destined for some kind of after-life on television, which is where either could have started as something halfway from a serial drama to a sitcom.

Most Edinburgh Festival hits make the long trek south in the following months looking distinctly hungover, and often very fragile in the colder light of a London winter; the wonder of Perfect Days is that it is every bit as good as we were told from Scotland last August.

In an elegant Glasgow loft lives Barbs (the feisty and fiery Siobhan Redmond in what will clearly be one of the performances of the year), who has her own daytime television slot and a highly successful hairdressing salon. What she doesn't have is a baby and, approaching 40, she decides this has to be sorted. An ex-husband of remarkable if hopeless tolerance, a gay boyfriend, a college-age lover and a mother from hell are soon on the scene to aid and abet her quest for motherhood, and Lochhead's hugely vital, funny and charming comedy looks at times as if Neil Simon had rewritten Shirley Valentine north of the border.

No, Perfect Days is not perfect, but in John Tiffany's production what saves it from being a dire morality play is Lochhead's evident enjoyment of her characters and their various social and sexual predicaments. If it weren't to sound like a sexist insult, I'd say she was a new Willy Russell in drag.

The other 'new' play of the week dates still further back, to the July of 1996, and also features a mother from hell, though in this case she does have the grace to be dead, albeit omnipresent. This one comes from Hampstead, where Shelagh Stephenson's first script, the patchily brilliant The Memory of Water, was first seen in a production by Terry Johnson. Nearly three years later, after a long regional tour, a new production comes into the Vaudeville, again directed by Johnson but with an allnew cast starring Alison Steadman, Samantha Bond and Julia Sawalha as the three sisters gathered at their old family home on the north-east coast of England to bury their cantankerous mother (Margot Leicester), who reappears periodically from beyond her shiny new coffin to make all their lives still more troublesome. …

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