Browse reviews

FringeReview UK 2016

Motherhood:(Un)speakable, (Un)spoken

About Face Theatre Company, in Association with the Free Space Gallery and the Authentic Artist Collective.

Genre: Comedic, Devised, Fringe Theatre, New Writing, Performance Art, Physical Theatre, Puppetry, Short Plays, Solo Performance, Storytelling, Theatre, Verbatim Theatre

Venue: The Rialto


Low Down

After more developments and performances Motherhood:(Un)speakable, (Un)spoken is again performed at the Rialto. Joanna Rosenfeld and Kath Burlinson have co-devised, the former acting the latter directing this extraordinary piece, with a new design by Ellan Parry, with a perky, tender score by Sioned Jones from melodies by Rosenfeld, and produced by Tessa Howell. There was a fine 25 minute post-show discussion.


They’re back with a further revised show. Joanna Rosenfeld and Kath Burlinson have co-devised, the former acting the latter directing this extraordinary piece. After some RND performances at ACT in November 2015 and more fully at the Rialto November 2016, it’s again performed at the Rialto, with a new design by Ellan Parry, with a perky, tender score by Sioned Jones from melodies by Rosenfeld, and produced by Tessa Howell.


Ninety seconds into this one-woman play, Rosenfeld emerges after seismic ripples in a poke of fingers from a cagoule of brown paper. She playfully bulks her body for late pregnancy, is over-voiced by herself giving witness to one of the first witnesses to tens of verbatim experiences we hear. This tells us the baby’s a parasite, sucks all your nutrients, calcium from your teeth for instance, causes injury, often permanent, like hernias kicked out, can kill. The gamut of experiences pregnancy and motherhood bring has hardly begun. This is – literally – epic interior theatre.


‘Who would I do this for…. if not for you’ Rosenfeld interacts with both high-tech voiceover and rolling text when it arrives which she pitches onto her shirt or leaves visible projected as at the end of the show. ‘Cassie’s giving birth’s a Caesarean: Rosenfeld manages to raise a red tent from her midriff as if in the operating theatre in a painfully exact crunch of traumas and near-death from haemorrhage.


In another supermarket scene ‘Mary’ plucks out items for shopping her waters break whilst the tannoy intones ‘spillage in Aisle 4’ as she hastily evacuates as it were the scene pretending it’s not hers. She delivers her own child, comically apologizing for the mess and telling the staff it’s too late for an ambulance now, resuming her search for milk, baby slung on her arm. It’s as sang-froid as one ‘Laura’ who eschewing hospital delivers in a tiger-mother shout of affirmation.


It was at Laura’s point one thought tragedy might emerge with terrible literalness: a trajectory of witness though is adroitly managed; the material’s pitched in a consummate arc. In another ‘Sunita’ avoids all previous friends. There’s something imperfect with the baby and she collapses inwards as if it’s her fault, that she’s failed, noting culturally that her family and friends think this.


The exhaustion of baby-rearing is mimed with insistently cheerful, often tender music perambulating through Rosenfeld’s puppetry where she desperately seeks rest and ‘a private poo’. Her dumb show of acute pain at breast-feeding is complicated by nappy-changing: at one exhausted millisecond she sits on the baby after losing the phone. Rosenfeld’s concise gamut of expressions, her capacity to animate the paper call for special praise, as does her honestly-sourced swearing. In a play about multi-tasking Rosenfeld proves here at least one of those terrifying super-mums that she personally can’t identify with (who can?).


What does motherhood mean to you, what did your mother do for you? Rosenfield asks for and receives hesitant quiet responses. Later she asks us what we did for our mother. This energizes the show with active if potentially uncomfortable intimacy for some, but again it was received with a hushed and growing warmth.


Another interpolated voice-over comes backed with a fantastical off-beating rap-over from the mother of the director, litanizing all the dangers attending the growing child, dosed in two parts, early and later, one of them rapped out as a ninety-year old coolly reads through this. Laburnum seeds will never sound innocent again.


There’s a contorting sleight of boxes Rosenfeld collapses into and plucks brown paper maquettes from with Parry’s eerily precise-looking puppets of a daughter and giant menacing child – with a mobile.


Rosenfeld’s protean physicality is mesmerising: Or sings, sets up the girl maquette who then attacks a baby brother and bites Rosenfeld who in a terrible lapse, bites back. Rosenfeld’s expressions are again riveting, with the walk of pain across her face unforgettable acute, tragic.


The monster child set up on a ladder does duty for all those sprawling teenage years of gawk and spurt. Rosenfeld has him grow, enacts this huge brown paper child hoiking its hand over her own head and saddens momentarily when s/he excludes a sister – another flash of humour Rosenfeld wrinkles her nose at. Sashaying physically with her own experiences, she gives verbatim witness verbatim; elsewhere it’s recorded.


One element that couldn’t be accommodated this time was a harrowing stillbirth. A few other sketches were removed to make way for teenage narratives and monster child whom Rosenfeld wittily pastes a mobile phone to. She then asks the reverse of her audience ‘what did you do for your mother?’


In a new ending some of the overwhelming sequencing of haiku-like stories have been removed, Rosenfeld after letting a few of the projected words paly over her, dissolves back into the drawing around herself she made early on, now augmented by the hormone visuals she added, discussing the art the baby leaves behind in a mother to ensure she bonds wit her child. her endless litany of ‘Who would I do this for… if not for you?’ is tilled finally as Rosenfeld melts back into posture,


This is now more fully developing with Arts Council funding, constantly shifting rhrough feedback, though it’s now a dramatically satisfying piece. On a slightly larger platform, and released into the community as intended in this run, this must give the most powerful witness imaginable to a central experience never discussed, let alone dramatized. Kath Burlinson, Rosenfeld’s co-deviser, directs with glass-etched clarity, coralling antiphonal voices and movement with a fine team.


There was a fine 25 minute post-show discussion, funny, sombre, frank, and inspiring, with personal witness and reaction given in forms. This is an outstanding devised theatre piece, with Rosenfeld’s outstandingly fine performance and wonderful, touchingly witty designs tightly directed with clever sue of space and props often popped out of. It could hardly be bettered, and is unique in its ambition scope, heartbreak and affirmation.