So much in My Mother Said I Never Should is unsaid, or half said. The enduring popularity of Charlotte Keatley’s 1987 play – which is frequently revived around the world – is perhaps in its perceptive portrayal of how bad families can be at communicating. We rarely say “I love you” or “I forgive you” at the right moment.
Sheffield Theatres’ new co-production with the company fingersmiths draws out this theme. British Sign Language adds new layers to director Jeni Draper’s interpretation of a play about communication – and the lack of it. Secrets are signed behind backs; when words fail, signs take over. It’s both a staging of deaf experience and a demonstration of how often our attempts to connect go awry.
Keatley’s play follows four generations of women in the same family over half a century, tracing the different opportunities and compromises available to its female characters. For Doris, born at the turn of the century, marriage means leaving her teaching job and dedicating herself to managing the household. Her daughter, Margaret, vows never to have children, but soon finds herself juggling motherhood and work. When her own daughter, Jackie, falls pregnant as a teenaged art student and struggles to cope, Margaret brings up granddaughter Rosie as her own, giving Jackie a shot at the kind of career Margaret could only dream of.
Sophia Lovell Smith’s set is half playground, half home, suggesting the domestic cares and burdens of these women and the submerged playfulness of their youth. A big slide cascades down one side of the stage, yet its surface is covered in pristine carpet; the friction of home and hearth brings headlong fantasies to a halt. As the play moves between scenes of childish imagination and the reality of adulthood, we see how often the protagonists’ ambitions shrink over time.
The cast of four deftly switch between these time frames, and are convincing both as exuberant kids and careworn women. Jude Mahon is particularly impressive as Margaret, who changes from cheekiness to wide-eyed aspiration to strained self-control, while EJ Raymond’s Jackie conveys an enormous amount of passion and frustration through her expressive signing. There’s a buoyant hopefulness to Lisa Kelly’s Rosie, who wants to change the world, while Ali Briggs’s schoolmarmish Doris slowly softens as she ages.
The performers skilfully navigate Keatley’s nonlinear chronology, but Draper’s production somewhat clunkily indicates the shifts in time with era-appropriate album covers shown on a screen above the stage – for the Sex Pistols and Madonna – accompanied by the corresponding music. These transitions are often drawn out, adding extra time to a play that already feels longer than it needs to be. After opening with a burst of boisterous energy, the production becomes increasingly sluggish.
More than 30 years after its premiere, My Mother Never Said I Should is still pertinent. Exhorted to “have it all”, many women remain saddled with the double shift of work and domestic duties, and have to face wrenching decisions about motherhood and career. In this version, fingersmiths also suggests how the lives of deaf women have changed over several generations, adding a new dimension to a much-produced play.
• At Studio theatre, Sheffield, until 23 November.