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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, Community Theatre, Contemporary, Devised, Family, Fringe Theatre, New Writing, Puppetry, Short Plays, Solo Performance, Storytelling, Theatre

Venue: The Rialto


Low Down

After some RND performances Motherhood: (Un)speakable, (Un)spoken is now 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 and produced by Tessa Howell. There was a fine 25 minute post-show discussion.


Joanna Rosenfeld and Kath Burlinson have co-devised, the former acting the latter directing this extraordinary piece. After some RND performances, notably at ACT last November, it’s now performed at the Rialto, with a new design by Ellan Parry, with a perky, tender score by Sioned Jones and produced by Tessa Howell.


Moments into this one-woman play, Joanna Rosenfeld – emerging in a poke of fingers from a cagoule of brown paper – 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, can kill. The gamut of experiences pregnancy and motherhood bring has hardly begun. This is – literally – epic interior theatre.


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. One 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 she 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 a woman 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.


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 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. 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.


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.


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.


This recording could mark a curious, equivocal alienation though Rosenfeld works so hard that to take all these other voices as well as balletically swivel in this tiny space might be asking too much of even her.


One element that couldn’t be accommodated this time was a harrowing stillbirth, and a few other sketches were removed to make way for the teenage narratives and monster child whom Rosenfeld wittily pastes a mobile phone to.


This is still developing with Arts Council funding. 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 ad affirmation.