FringeReview UK 2018
Be My Baby that launched Amanda Whittington in 1998. Revived many times it’s come to NVT in a production directed by Jerry Lyne. Adam Kinkaid’s set for the Upstairs theatre is an unfussy twin bed as a shard bedroom with exits back. Richard Blennerhassett’s costumes involve a striking lime green and grey uniform. Strat Mastoris’ lighting is uniformly crisp as it were. Ian Black’s soundtrack’s a medley of Ronettes’ and Carole King songs.
There’s much to be said for slice-of-life plays revisiting times when such work was standard – with themes those times flinched from.
Famed now for her 2013 The Thrill of Love about Ruth Ellis, Ladies’ Day (2005) and sequel Ladies Down Under, it was Amanda Whittington’s Be My Baby that launched her in 1998. Revived many times it’s come to NVT in a sparkling truthful production directed by Jerry Lyne. Even with an interval it barely lasts one hundred and five minutes: Whittington’s concise from the start, eschewing padding.
1964, and Mary Evans a ‘nice’ nineteen-year-old girl seven months pregnant is dragged to St Saviours and stern Matron by her mother, so she can have her baby, part with her and rejoin the bank branch that like – her father – has no idea.
Mary’s no hapless victim; her steady lover’s a medical student who was stopped from seeing her after everything was discovered. Will he ever come back? Mary had concealed her bump cleverly, she’s bright and determined. But for now the threat – indeed near-certainty – of adoption hangs over her. She’s the only one who wants to keep her baby. Whittington’s play conveys this stifling narrowness facing young women. And it gets a bit worse.
Adam Kinkaid’s set for the Upstairs theatre is an unfussy twin bed as a shared bedroom with exits back, Mary’s Dansette record player and records – a real luxury – and downstage left a small desk and chairs functioning as Matron’s office. Downstage right the open space serves as prologue, but nearly all action takes place in that bedroom: claustrophobic but comforting too. Strat Mastoris’ lighting is uniformly crisp as it were, with just a few moments of darkness, sometimes evocatively phased. There’s a symbolic glimmer behind the exits in the very last scene.
Richard Blennerhassett’s costumes involve a striking lime green and grey uniform; period matron clothes in navy, not far from the mother’s dark blue. It’s a bright, suitably monochrome insistence, underscored with downbeat makeup.
Ian Black’s soundtrack’s a medley of Ronettes’ songs including the great Carole King’s ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ and of course ‘Be My Baby’. They sashay through heartwarming moments. Young women bump their bumps together with an insouciance that’s heartbreaking.
Lizzie Kroon’s excellent as Mary, carrying as it were the burden of the play with a poise and understated emotion that renders her plight poignant, funny and occasionally feisty. She’s particularly good as a rational denier, in her lack of experience, not intelligence, desperately seeking out exits from her situation or even the Home she’s involuntarily thrust in.
Katie Brownings’ Matron delivers a performance of tough-ender empathy, with tragedy of her own to disclose, only to Diane Robinson’s literally buttoned-up Mrs Adams. Their own conversation, layering back Mary’s miracle-baby status after many years, and their flash of understanding, is a quiet telling moment showing how even here in her first work, Whittington had learned to be generous and insightful in all corners of her drama.
Brownings’ revelations of decency are never overdone. She’s firm to the last. Whittington never for a moment monsters Matron, and even Robinson’s blinkered but protective Mrs Adams grows with this colloquy. We’re allowed to empathise with motives we initially dislike, even when disagreeing.
But it’s Mary’s interactions with the other three inmates that blossoms this play into a singing joy as they dance off to the Dansette, that uneasy counterpoint of church-dreamt marriage against their reality. And one of them wants to sing. Both comic and poignant, with a lurch to potential tragedy, it’s the kind of play celebrating young womens’ solidarity, a tipping-up of rules. There’s a different world burgeoning if you can get out there and not miss the sixties.
At its core is Mary’s friendship with Queenie, Rosie Blackadder’s gobby spirited and twin-expecting fighter, someone who at a crucial point reveals something about her past that makes you realize why she’s already so worldly. Her request to have her twins split up since simultaneous birthdays she feels halves their prospects, is both wrong-headed and bitterly knowing. Blackadder naturally shows an underlying tenderness but both her performance and Whittington’s stagecraft doesn’t allow this to be stable or predictable. Queenie wants to be a singer too; she duets with Mary, asks her if she’s got it. It’s how they bond.
There’s several crises ahead, though Whittington who might have capitalised on a shock drama around high blood-pressure, doesn’t want to raise ours with melodrama.
Georgia Cudby’s Dolores is a study of a disturbed medically-obsessed young woman reading out from a textbook which gives us much information, allowing us too to marvel at comparative ignorance. The scene allows Dolores a duolougue with semi-literate Norma, who’s reading another book altogether. Cudby though nails the nail-biting sin-obsessed Dolores who experiences a frightening post-natal delusion shrinks into isolation and terror, and again there’s an open question left hanging. Dolores’ shuddering withdrawal and frightening, frightened moments demand and get a whiff of West End quality.
Comedy too erupts though as all four play at teaching Ella Verity’s Norma about nappy changing using her as live demo baby. ‘Open your legs, we know you can’ is the kind of delicious one-liner sprinkled throughout.
Verity was cast as a dippy girl in Jumpy last June, and is so good at it she’s been cast again as daffy Norma. It takes a special gift to convey slow-wittedness with an underlying beat of conviction, and Verity owns this without guying Norma, and allows us in hesitations, palpable confusions and empathic bewilderment to feel for a girl who’ll probably always lose out, whether to married men or worse. Like all the cast her versatility recommends different roles too.
It’s Mary’s journey we invest in most; and Kroon’s gradual self-realisation is as painful as it might be, one day, empowering. And she has the final word. Kroon’s quiet but firm push as Mary carries dawning self-knowledge as well as how the world sees her. This is a necessary play, resonant beyond the confines of period or situation. And this is a first-rate revival. It has much to say about girls becoming women, the world that oppresses them, and the constraints – and power – of bringing a child into the world. Like several NVT productions recently, you should see this.