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Review: A Word For Mother (Upstairs at The Gatehouse)

Review by Harry Bower

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

When a loved one passes away, it often brings together the whole family. Feuds are forgiven, work is dropped, and everyone gathers to remember their common connection. As you might guess from the title, in Tim McArthur’s A Word For Mother, it is Mummy Pru who has passed. Her three daughters Charity, Faith, and Hope, are the mourners who arrive at her apartment in the aftermath. In a cramped flat surrounded by clutter from the past, the trio reminisce together, sparking off memories which are brought to life on-stage by flashbacks where we see happier or more complicated times. Each sister gets their own intimate retelling of a significant moment with their mother, quickly followed by dramatic and intense flashbacks in which all sisters were present; Christmas, funerals, birthdays. To anyone in a large family this play will often feel warm and familiar. It does a brilliant job of capturing the essence of conflict that exists between siblings.

 

As each flashback peels back another layer in the complex family dynamic between the four women, tension rises. From the start it is clear that Charity and Faith don’t get on, but it’s not until the crescendo of act one that we find out why. Without ruining anything for anyone reading this, the wedge between them is one of vitriol and deep hurt, played out with Mummy Pru and ‘princess’ Hope stuck in the middle. In act two as family events bring the trio back together, first for Pru’s husband’s funeral and then for her own, the game becomes watching those relationships thaw as some harsh truths are excavated.



I have to be honest, I went into A Word For Mother feeling sceptical. I had read the writer’s notes in the virtual programme and felt a little uneasy about the prospect of watching a play written so clearly about women and their inner strength, by a man. Rightly or wrongly, that set alarm bells ringing in my mind. In reality the writing is the strongest part of this production. Characters and relationships are believable and have real depth. Dialogue is witty and fun but also nuanced. Director Sarah Redmond’s quote in the programme says that, “Tim’s really found the female voice”, and it’s easy to agree with that after watching the play. By the writer’s own admission, they were surrounded by female stories and strong female influences all their life; those experiences shine through in what feels like an authentic piece.

 

While tone of voice is pretty good, the piece seems to struggle under the load of drama placed upon its shoulders. Characters and performances can be overwhelmed by huge plot revelations, and it seems like on multiple levels there is too much crammed into the short two acts. On a basic level that’s evident with the sheer number of props in use (the stage crew deserve a pay rise for resetting that every night!); often the performers simply run out of time to complete their prop work. Laundry-folding is dropped and shirts thrown into a basket, vodka and tonics barely sipped before they’re offering each other another one, transition costume changes rushed to avoid the music ending prematurely. It’s like a workout for the eyes of the audience which distracts from the ongoing narrative.

 

The same can be said of the sound design which is a bit baffling; all phones ring at the same volume and from the same single speaker as loud music played from a radio, and a desperately naff spray can sound effect poorly emulates an air freshener. Door slams sound as though the building’s about to collapse. Props are plentiful but the quality is haphazard; fantastically detailed clutter on the kitchen counter is overshadowed by a comically large cake box. The loudest vacuum cleaner in the world leaves dialogue fully drowned out. These are minor criticisms, but these rough edges start to stack up.



It seems like A Word For Mother is constantly battling against its own ambition. There are hugely promising relationships at its core, and it is written with compassion and from a point of deep understanding about the drivers of grief and family relationships. But too often it overstretches and tries to run before it can walk. Sometimes a more simple approach with the same feeling at its heart can be just as effective as stacking conflict upon conflict. When the more touching and understated moments happen in the piece, they are hard hitting and heartwarming.

 

Performances throughout are effective archetypal caricatures. Louise Gold as Mummy Pru is fussy, attentive, and manipulative in an understated way. Abigail Moore is brutally deadpan and sarcastic in a way only older sisters can be, with a painful vulnerability at the core of her performance which shines through in the conflict scenes. Melaina Pecorini plays the youngest sister with a moody teenage grunt, but reveals just enough of the character’s wide-eyed youthful optimism that she endears Hope to everyone watching. Heather Johnson completes the foursome as Faith, a bumbling and nervous people pleaser pushed to her limits by those around her taking advantage of her kind soul. All four are convincing and there is huge talent on display, though each occasionally strays into the realms of overacting when pushed by the material and busy direction to cram as much as possible into short scenes.

 

A Word For Mother is an authentic retelling of age old stories; sisters and their relationships, shepherded by the family matriarch. It effectively analyses grief and what happens to complex and nuanced relationships when someone of huge importance dies – and is generally an enjoyable watch, well-paced and written with heart. Where it struggles is in its ambition; though if that’s the biggest criticism then it has a promising future.

 

A Word for Mother plays at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 26 May 2024. For more information visit: https://www.upstairsatthegatehouse.com/

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