Association of Community Theatre
Show Reviews - May 2017
BE MY BABY
by Amanda Whittington
Colne Dramatic Society
Having being born in the early 1960s myself, Colne Dramatic Society’s May play, Be My Baby, intrigued me from the outset: it was an unsettling time for pregnant young women with or without the support of a loving husband or parents. It was also a period now described by The Science Museum as, “one of the darkest episodes in pharmaceutical research history” for it was a time of recommending cures for sleeplessness and morning sickness, one being thalidomide, the effects of which were devastating for many. However, it is not this particular shadow on pregnancy in young women during the 1960s that is examined in Amanda Wittington’s poignant portrayal, but one that could be perceived as equally dark in its content – enforced adoption.
Although chilling in its factual references, it is also a story that is pinned together with moments of light and laughter, of joyous togetherness, and for this reason, the play’s realism both warms and chills the soul through Whittington’s beautifully penned characterisation.
In the programme, director Eleanor Jolley sets the scene of the fictional St Saviours, a temporary home for young unmarried mothers-to-be; a building of purpose – to care for until the babies are born, with a regular dose of practical advice administered should any young woman veer towards a desire to keep her offspring once the birth has taken place. Everything will be taken care of, including the adoption process, the young women are assured.
Duty and practicality are on the menu every day, as Matron asks, without malice or evident compassion, what possible love the young women can give to their babies, once born. Whittington’s intention is that the voices of these young women are heard, resonating through their youthful naivety, their camaraderie, their fear and anguish, and their pain of loss.
The young women’s personalities are the varied colours of this story’s palette, and as such I was surprised to see a brightly painted set in fushia pink and cornflower blue, with curious beautiful children’s clothing adorning the bedroom where the character of Mary finds herself just after she is taken there by her ashamed ageing mother. Yet, paint and adornments aside, the set was used to great effect, magically becoming a study, then a washroom, with a simple pulling over of a washing line to mask the bedroom at the rear of the stage. The idea was so simple, so perfect, and having one of the young women (the delightful Dolores, skipping with dizzy loveliness) carrying out her daily duty of hanging the line, allowed the scene transitions to be smooth and a joy, rather than the usual, often dull blackout. It was an ingenious and very successful decision. In fact, there was nothing dull about this production: musically, the play can carry many tunes and I would have loved to have heard more, because the backing music (from Mary’s record player and the occasional scene change track) and most particularly, the girls’ own singing, is an ingredient that lifts the play from one of absolute sadness – deep sorrow for what these young women faced, the loss of their new-born babies - to one of heart-lifting compassion for their youth, and should the babies be taken away at birth,. the knowledge that this was a youth that may well continue,. The audience knows that with the loss (adoption) of each baby, a young mother remains young. It is a contradiction of emotions that could not fail to bring a tear to one’s eye.
A second congratulation must go to the set construction team, John Mills, Alan Hargreaves and Nigel Catterall, and properties, led by Jackie Williamson. The achievement in designing and creating two beds that appeared to be standard single beds, but were in fact tiny, although due to the positioning on stage, no one would have guessed they were anything other than a normal single bed. This demonstrates again just how clever the society’s teams are in making the most of the tiny stage they have. The young actresses looked fabulous in their matching uniforms, nighties and appropriate hair styling, utterly convincing.
I understand too, that both lighting and sound were handled alone by Paul Thompson – no mean feat in a play packed with many lighting changes and a variety of sound cues to juggle.
The parts of Mary Adams (Emily Williamson), Queenie (Cathryn Osborne), Norma (Charis Deighton) and Dolores (Brogan Riley) could not have been better cast. To single out one would be grossly unfair for each was perfect in delivery and acted with absolute conviction. Knowing that the performers have a musical theatre background, I can imagine how thrilled the director must have been when they read for this play – each has a sweet voice that can send shivers down one's back and the fact that they can all portray characters with skill, determination and clarity surely must have made the task of directing a happy one.
One stand-out scene – possibly for the sheer depth of compassion that I felt- was the one illustrating Norma’s mental state and her confusion and distress with the growing realisation that she would never see her new-born baby again. This is not to say that any scene lacked depth: each young woman had a story to tell, and each told it with sincerity and believable courage. These four actresses were the greatest strength of this production: Mary’s sincere hope and will, Queenie’s assertive stoicism and wit, Dolores’s naïve sweetness and Nora’s deeply touching anxiety and grief were brilliantly portrayed, giving the production an engaging magnetism.
Fiona McInerney’s Matron was subtle and persuasive: a characterisation of conviction, of balanced soft delivery with a firm hand and determination to fulfil her role. I found the character curiously beguiling – there was just a hint at past personal loss that wasn’t lost at all midst the tears, laughter and sorrow of the young women. Her forthrightness may have been relatively gentle (no shouting, no brutal brusqueness) yet there was a steely determination to accomplish a smooth adoption for each baby, and for this reason, one had to question what influenced her unwavering belief in the correctness of her position. I found myself wanting to know more about her. Rather less three-dimensional is the character of Mrs Adams, who breezes in to deliver her daughter to St Saviour's at the very beginning. Paying the entire fee up front, her concerns are with reputation, keeping things under wraps and voicing her insistence that Mary would not be returning to work under a cloud of shame. She returns to collect her daughter in much the same way, not without compassion for Mary, but with no apparent deep understanding of what her daughter has experienced. Susan Mullen gave a convincing performance as a harrowed older mother, desperately afraid of losing face in the community.
The final scene of the play ends quite abruptly. Artistically, this is successful, for it leaves the audience wanting more, wishing that we had been told what happened to Queenie and Dolores - did they have their own babies safely? And did Norma ever recover from the distress of the birth and the baby’s removal that we witnessed on stage? We were left to question how the young women were received by the fathers of their babies, if at all.
I have heard that several productions deliver the final scene differently, some focusing on Matron, left holding Mary’s teddy bear, something that had provided Mary with some comfort while she was at St Saviour’s; other productions focus on Mary’s departure, or simply on the bear itself. Whatever the case, the audience is left in quiet reflection of how hundreds of young women must have felt very confused and possibly very rejected and alone in their grief.
This was a production that demonstrated huge commitment from cast and production team alike. It is a rare thing to walk away from a theatre wanting more. Much, much more.