Sheffield Theatres’ and fingersmiths’ distinctly diverse and accessible co-production of My Mother Said I Never Should refreshes Charlotte Keatley’s 1987 play with a bold new approach.

fingersmiths are an emerging visual physical theatre company, working with deaf and hearing actors to create a multi-layered approach to language and physical expression. This inclusive adaptation, directed by Jeni Draper, utilises a range of communication techniques – sign language, subtitles, physical theatres, and spoken lines – as it follows the lives and relationships of four generations of women in the same family over the 20th century.

For the eldest, Doris, born at the turn of the century, engagement marked the “beginning of her life”, leaving her teaching job to manage the household. Her daughter Margaret is determined to be more than a wife but ends up a workaholic. Margaret’s relationship with her own daughter is strained as art student Jackie experiments with her new found sexual freedom. But when Jackie falls pregnant aged 18, Margaret decides to bring up granddaughter Rosie as her own. The play looks at the consequences of this secret upon the family, while tracing the different choices the women have available to them. 

It is a play of contrasts, following a nonlinear chronology as it moves back and forth through the century. We begin with the four women acting as their childhood selves playing in the surreal waste ground, their costumes representing the different eras they grew up in – WW2 era smart brown pinafores contrasting modern rainbow shorts. As the play unfolds, we see the contrast in freedom that the later generations, Jackie and Rosie, are afforded – they could be whatever they wanted, pursue any career, reject family life for independence.

The performance perfectly portrays intergenerational family tensions alongside deep love, particularly in scenes where all four generations interact. The use of sign language creates a strong sense of familial community and solidarity as each woman communicates differently with the others.

Ali Briggs gives a moving performance as the wonderfully strict yet doting grandmother Doris, with a charming combination of gravitas and comic timing. Jude Mahon is tragic and stirring as the strong and suffering Margaret, attempting to juggle both a job and family life but ultimately crumbling and falling ill. While EJ Raymond as Jackie gives an immensely emotional performance, conveying real vulnerability with her expressive signing.

The production’s execution still needs honing, with the clarity in some scenes lost as the audience attempts to read subtitles and watch the action at the same time. Despite this, My Mother Said I Never Should is an enchanting portrayal of family life and social change told from a wholly new perspective, hopefully similarly diverse and inclusive productions will become only more frequent.

4 Stars.

My Mother Said I Never Should is on at The Crucible Studio until 23 November.

Featured Image: Mark Douet

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