The last time I cried at the theatre was ten years ago at the National, when poor mad Lear stooped over the body of his youngest daughter. That is till last night, when on a tiny stage above a pub in Earl’s Court a line was delivered with such poignancy and tenderness my eyes flooded with tears. Not even my husband was immune: he gave a manful performance of suffering an early attack of hayfever.
Joanna Murray-Smith’s play concludes the Finborough Theatre’s ‘New Year, New Plays’ season. In it, Billie, a winsome young actress ruled more by her heart than her head, has sought out the mother who gave her up at birth. She finds Anna, a chic and successful forty-something with a nice line in black linen suits, whose pregnancy as a teenager at the end of the sixties was a shame to her family. Meeting for the first time in Anna’s apartment, which resembles nothing so much as the waiting room in a Harley Street clinic, the two women attempt a reconciliation, Anna delicately side-stepping the younger woman’s unashamed need for love with embarrassed offers of tea.
I’ll admit the prospect of a two-hander rarely fills me with unalloyed joy, but this production contrives somehow to get everything right. In the brief opening scene, Charlotte Lucas as Billie stands gazing out, musing on a lifetime’s imaginings of what her mother would have been like, and how much she would have loved her. Interwoven with her thoughts are interjections from Kristin Millwood as an unseen Anna: it seems she too has wondered what their shared life might have been. Moments later and the set is flooded with light, and we suspect Billie to have been merely daydreaming: Anna’s not the motherly woman tormented with regret she imagined, and instead prickles visibly at her daughter’s attempts to break through her reserve. They pace restlessly around the too-neat apartment, moving from uncertainty through resentment to reconciliation.
Plays of such intimate scope are notoriously unforgiving: there’ll be no ‘exit, pursued by a bear’ to offer a welcome diversion; no-one is going to break into song. Thankfully the performances here are well up to the task – Charlotte Lucas expresses a marvelous mix of vulnerability and affection, livened with a pleasing tendency to fly into anger, and Kristin Millwood’s performance was one of the best I’ve seen in recent years. She makes expert use of a deep-toned voice made for the stage, seeming not to be acting at all, and every gesture of her hands adds to our sense of how she feels.
That Murray-Smith is one of Australia’s most respected writers, both as novelist and playwright, is evident throughout. The dialogue skillfully weaves the mundane with painful moments of revelation and self-examination, and is spiked with flashes of humour.
More importantly, this is not just a play about mothers and daughters. Without seeming to do so and certainly without the aggravating preachiness of ‘issue’ plays it invites an examination of the political and social ideologies that separate two generations of women. Anna recalling her kaftan-wearing youth is appalled at Billie’s political apathy; Billie wonders aloud whether the freedom of choice so treasured by her mother has damaged a woman’s pleasure in the maternal instinct.
The production’s realism is welcome: too often we see heavily stylised sets that positively invite disbelief, but here the naturalism of the acting is complemented by a thoughtfully accurate recreation of Anna’s apartment. At one point the light dims, and we hear it begin to rain, one of several small details that conspired to make me feel rather as if I were eavesdropping in someone’s living room.
The play has the requisite twist in the tale, which duly elicited a gasp or two. Perhaps my only genuine quibble is that having delivered the twist it all ended rather suddenly – but not, however, before Anna finally gives in and imagines what might have been, leaving me reaching for a hanky.
Love Child deserves a transfer to a bigger venue but life is rarely so just catch this small gem of a production while you can.