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Issue 1782 (PDF)
The student newspaper of Imperial College London

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Good morning, midnight... mother!

Jean Rhys meets Noah Baumbach in this slightly off pitch yet scintillating Texan period drama.

56 Photo: Marc Brenner


in Issue 1782


'night, Mother

★ ★ ★
Hampstead Theatre
Until 4th December 21
From £10 (Student Tickets)

The lights cut and Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight faintly echoes in the background as the characters cue onto the stage. 'night, Mother, directed by Roxanna Silbert is the modern retelling of the 1985 Broadway-hit of the same name written by Masha Norman. The play features only two characters, a mother-daughter duo (Thelma and Jesse played by Stockard Channing and Rebecca Night) and follows the story of Jesse, who has (for unconvincing reasons) not just decided to take her own life, but also deemed it worthy to tell her mother about it just moments before she does. The unfolding dance between the two, with Thelma trying to convince Jesse otherwise, Jesse’s past and her ‘reasons’, and the eventual “’night, Mother”, takes its course on stage over the span of the next 80 minutes in this uniquely American (Nay! Texan) drama.

In my book, a show is always the sum of its parts. The script, direction, light & sound design, and acting all need to come together coherently to result in some sort of catharsis. This structure of evaluation and appreciation remains the same whether it’s an original, an adaptation, or a rerun. Unfortunately, these elements fail to strongly converge in this play.

Channing and Night’s acting comes and goes in waves. In their individual scenes they both show great talent and flair; together with the writing they are able to move the audience to tears. But, whilst sharing the stage amidst conversations, the chemistry of a mother-daughter duo feels amiss. There are a few highlights that are nevertheless stupendous and hit home strongly (the monologues towards the end are a treat for any theatre aficionado who appreciates a good script and acting — more on that later). But these scenes are too far and few between to sustain us over the short run of the play.

Throughout, the characters move about the set, seemingly preoccupied, emptying and filling jars just to give the impression they aren’t there all by themselves, speaking into a void. And, as such, the set design, as masterfully crafted as it is, crumbles away and remains one step removed from the rest of the drama — failing to cohere with the story or the characters.

Jesse’s past, her history of epilepsy, and the family’s discordant relationship is not explored convincingly enough, and with such a short run time, this miss does seem unconvincing. The writing in the play’s denouement seems highly reminiscent of Jean Rhys in her novel Good Morning, Midnight (its theme of depression and despair also resonating with this play); and dare I say, Noah Baumbach’s writing in Marriage Story. Not sure if the writer of this play took inspiration from Jean Rhys, or if Baumbach took inspiration from them both — but the similarities result in a pleasant and satisfying déjà vu for anyone who has sampled these works.   The writing is highly persuasive and is thus a testament to the raw talent behind it, that, in parts, leads us to dismiss all other misgivings. And it is this fallacy that intrigues us; or rather keeps us engaged, where we are left disinterested one moment, only be yanked out of such a state by a sheer moment of genius in the next.

As I made my way to the theatre (I stress enough that I did not make this up), I overheard a gentleman trying his best to–impress his partner no doubt–articulate his understanding of theatre by using the following quote “going to theatre for me is like church”. Without delving deep into the cheesiness of the metaphor or the religiosities of this couple, if we are to take this person’s word for it — then this billing would certainly fit the description. Rich Texan accents, period setting, guns and violence, discordant families, teeny-tiny absolution — and the placebo feeling of satiation. In this sense, ‘night, Mother is a show to be experienced: Just as an atheist might feel compelled to step into the threshold of an altar, to know if the few absolutions of religion are enough to move them.

Are the parts greater than their sum? Are few moments of absolution or catharsis worth the whole song and dance of a lifetime (or in this case an 80-minute show)? If these questions intrigue you, ponder on at Hampstead Theatre where this show runs until 4th December 2021. You would not be disappointed.

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