Be My Baby
May 18 – June 1, 2019
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
Be My Baby is a subtly gripping history lesson about an underexposed and somewhat shameful aspect of our collective past. Set in a home for unwed mothers it centers on the lives of a small group of young women from very different backgrounds who never the less find themselves in the same predicament: being single and pregnant at a time ( the early 1960’s) when to be so was tantamount to social suicide.
At the very heart of the play is Mary (Simona Bitmate), a young woman from a comfortable middle class background whose disapproving mother (played brilliantly by Jo Mousley – all brittle anxiety and superiority) is conflicted about leaving her in such a place.However under the firm hand of Matron, the head of austere St Saviours Mary begins to find her feet. She befriends the other girls, sassy, hardbitten Queenie ( Crystal Condie ), giddy, naive Dolores ( Tessa Parr )and serious, self-contained Norma ( Anna Gray) as they bond over their mutual incarceration and their shared love of soulful pop.
All have their individual fantasies of boyfriends, jobs and escape which they begin to reveal to each other, all in different levels of denial about their situation. The play started slowly creating a sense of time and place before gradually drawing the characters out (none of whom are entirely what they seem). I found the dialogue with its flashes of humour and underplayed emotion very naturalistic. The script relied as much on what was not said as what was. There was a sense that things were hinted at and suggested which made the gradual revelations both believable and all the more affecting. The potential heaviness of the subject matter too was handled in such a way that it seemed to gradually seep into the play almost imperceptibly until the quietly devastating final act.
At first we are encouraged to view matron as being a negative figure, the girls jailer a prudish and stern disciplinarian but such is the depth of the play that Matron is shown to have great empathy for the girls. There is a tenderness and care beneath her stiff exterior. Even during a deeply uncomfortable scene in which she forces Mary to understand how the world outside might view her we don’t doubt that this is done for the best intentions. Susan Twist’s performance as Matron is a masterclass in restraint, with tenderness and deep feeling glimpsed beneath her character’s stiff exterior.
In fact the script encourages the audience to empathise with all the differing perspectives of the characters to the extent that we can see how everyone is equally struggling with social rules they had no say in making. For though this is a play about women men still act as a shadowy presence off stage, their actions pushing the events of the story as much as the women on it. In this way the play shows how all the women are contained and restrained by the expectations and desires of the men around them. Even the sassy Queenie appears to ultimately accept that to imagine another way is nothing but a pipe dream.
The play has something to say about class too as it looks at the different expectations the girls and others have of them. The interplay between Queenie and Mary, showing how the former’s inverted snobbery stops her from seeing they are both equally trapped. The actors all have good material to work with and all manage to create fully realised nuanced performances. No-one here is a cliché or cypher yet through them the show explores issues as varied as back-street abortions, rape and forced adoption. I found the relationship between Queenie, the tough cynic with dreams of pop stardom and Mary, the naive girl from the genteel background with the steely resolve particularly finely drawn. It felt like we were watching the growth, blossoming and wilting of a friendship before our very eyes.Although both the script and performances are uniformly excellent some of the credit for making the play a success must go to the overall design, sound and lighting.
The costumes of the characters were cleverly used in a symbolic way. . The pastel pinks,purples and blues of the parental figures denoting a faded authority, the grey pinafores of the girls seeming to suggest a desire to turn back them back into little girls, whilst also implying the dull uniformity of the prison yard. The overall use of a limited palette in terms of costume and set allowed the performances themselves the space to breathe which they needed. The set which could – given the time period of the play – have been used in a more hackneyed way was used to convey a sense of sterility, it’s minimalist grey cabinets, shelves and boxes evoking more the furnishing department of a high street department store than the swinging 60’sof lore.
The only element which did place us in a particular time-frame was the play’s imaginative use of music. Between each scene change we hear and see the girls sing along to 60’s pop which wittily expressed their situation. Towards the beginning when a moment of romantic pop segued and merged with a hymn and later as the music overlapped a wistful monologue this was handled in such a masterful way as to really hit me in the gut. The lighting, subdued throughout was particularly effective during the spotlit birthing scene. This created a real sense of wonder as the actress performed in a kind of flowing, slow-moving mime the act of her baby bulge becoming a living, breathing child.
I found the play to be unexpectedly moving as I found myself drawn into the lives of these young women journeying with them through their excitements, fears, frustrations and disappointments. It was all the more emotionally rich for being performed by all with such obvious care and empathy. Ultimately it was a fitting tribute to the lives of all those young women whose unknown story it now told so well.