Charlotte Keatley on the Theatre by the Lake production of ‘My Mother Said I Never Should’

Maggie OBrien - picture by Robert Day

Maggie OBrien - picture by Robert Day - Credit: Archant

Charlotte Keatley’s play comes to Keswick

Charlotte Keatley - photo courtesy of TBTL

Charlotte Keatley - photo courtesy of TBTL - Credit: Archant

Charlotte Keatley wrote the play ‘My Mother Said I Never Should’ in 1985 aged just 25. The play has gone on to be the most performed play by a female playwright and translated into 22 languages. It is studied in schools and performed all over the world and comes to Theatre by the Lake (TBTL) from 23 May. The play focuses on four women from one family and how lives and decisions affect generations.

When we spoke, I asked, why does she think it resonates with so many?

“Because it’s about loss,” she answered not dropping a beat, “and very deep healing and things that don’t go away; what you hope to find in your life; when you find someone you love; work and when you have a child or not and what will your life mean. So, any age, any person, I think feels that. It’s really weird because I kept you waiting because we were doing act three and we were all just in the room, you could hardly move, it was so powerful what was coming out.”

I noted the play spans several decades and asked if this was a deliberate intention.

Director Katie Posner - picture by Robert Day

Director Katie Posner - picture by Robert Day - Credit: Archant

“Well actually, most of the century really because Doris is born near the beginning of the 20th Century, so I wanted to span roughly 100 years. We start when Doris is 18 - the youngest you see her. I was 25 and I was thinking what my life would have been like. I was thinking about my gran who was born in Oldham. The play isn’t in any way autobiographical but that’s my only connection.

I was in Manchester having grown up in London and I was thinking I could do anything, but I don’t know how life’s going to be. I just felt how weird that my gran was in the same city, and not that long before had so few choices. I remember her telling me that on her 18th birthday her mum said you must never go out without hat and gloves - that was just standard even if you were working class or whatever. I thought maybe I could write a play about this, the changes in society over the last 100 years which you see far more dramatically in women’s lives.

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As she was just 25 when she wrote ‘My Mother Said I Never Should’ and just beginning life as an independent adult, would she write it the same way now?

“No,” she replied bluntly. “You write a play because you’re writing about things you’re trying to understand. It felt like a needed play at the time, so my plays since are different. I wanted to present four very different lives and all these choices and things and not have anyone seem more right or wrong. So, I’m neutral, if you like, and I placed to myself exactly aged between Jackie and Rosie - I didn’t want to identify with any of them too much. What is really strange is throughout my life watching it there’ll be years, decades, later - when I have my daughter and my mum had died and all that - so I’m watching scenes which make me cry; it’s just what I’m going through now, which is extraordinary. I think your job as a playwright is to empathise and imagine so well that you can really express other people’s experiences.”

Asha Kingsley - picture by Robert Day

Asha Kingsley - picture by Robert Day - Credit: Archant

I can well believe the depth of empathy Charlotte has with the play and that gave me a nice segue into asking about the settings which, I understood, were Oldham, Manchester and London. Were these chosen entirely because she knew these areas personally?

“Well, Manchester is where I live. I never really liked London when I was growing up. I came to university in Manchester and thought ‘this is home!’ and have done ever since. I’m a northern person! And I think people in the north - women and men - are different. Women are much more strong, and bold, and say it how it is. In that period, I was living in really poor housing, in different areas of Manchester, and there were very working-class women who were, in their own way, feminists or revolutionaries and changing things. So, I wanted to write about how brave people are and how we mother each generation and that’s what creates our society. It’s a celebration of that as well.”

Is the play is really as positive and heart-warming as it sounds?

“It is! Oh, incredibly so, yes! It’s about love really and how we want to find love. And also, how we can change our lives, even near the end, to make them what we really want them to be, which is something I see more in the play now. People are often saying they come once and then they come back with their partner or their mum or daughter. It brings people together and gets people to talk about things they couldn’t before. I think my job is to express things that are hard to talk about or deal with. It’s hard doing it in real life but you can in the theatre - sometimes not directly, but you can show things. There’s a huge amount of love released by this play. I’m feeling it just in the rehearsals.”

Emily Pithon and Georgina Ambrey - picture by Robert Day

Emily Pithon and Georgina Ambrey - picture by Robert Day - Credit: Archant

I’m amazed by her energy and enthusiasm for this new production. Just recently, Maureen Lipman was performing the play and I got the feeling Charlotte would have been hands-on with that too. How do the cast for TBTL compare?

“Oh, the cast are amazing! That’s why I wanted you to wait until they’d done the last scene. They’re really amazing and Katie Posner, the director, unusually so. I don’t get involved in every production - there’d be so many - I’ll be involved if I can be useful. I was with that production in London with Maureen Lipman. They’re all completely different. The production belongs to the time and place it is in, that’s the magic bit about theatre. But this is really exceptional; this is probably going to be one of the most moving productions of the play ever.”

Really? I had to ask her why she thought so.

“Because the director understands the play so well and the actors are so good - they are good at finding the feelings, the love, the frustrations, the anger and guilt and trying to connect. I mean it’s the stuff that’s in everybody’s family life. It’s very funny as well I should say! They’re just really releasing what’s in it. And the tension of the story as well - secrets which are also in families - and the tension of whether people will find the courage to say ‘I love you’; the things that matter.”

This all sounds well and good, but if the play covers around 100 years, won’t it feel more like a period piece, I wondered. Will this still be relevant to today?

“Yeah, it’s almost scary how contemporary it feels. It’s becoming even more popular because I think it addresses so much of what we are dealing with now, and it’s weird because, yes, it’s set specifically in certain eras but, of course, some things do come around again - clothes and things. We re-visit decades, but most of all it’s that these things haven’t changed. It’s not like we’ve solved family life, ambition and love and how to make our lives mean something. Teenagers love this play too, because they study it in schools.”

I choose to end with a contentious question. With my own background and work with British Asian communities, I tend to associate Oldham and Manchester (and, obviously, cosmopolitan London) with these communities. I had wondered if there would be any reference to these in her play but hadn’t found any evidence of it with the cast seemingly all-white. There are a number of Asian women writers dealing with Asian difficulties and often underrated in the artistic world. I wondered if it had been a deliberate choice to avoid this aspect?

Charlotte puts me right on a few things, not least that the cast is all white. Secondly, she’s not avoiding anything at all.

“This play follows one family line, so I chose one family line. Asian culture breaks down into lots of smaller cultures and I didn’t know them enough at that point to write them - it would have been patronising. This is very specific to northern life, but it’s been done in Peru and Japan and Iceland and you name it - where it moves people just as much. So, it’s that funny thing that if you’re very specific to a particular place it becomes more universal - it’s a template.

Much, much more importantly, we’re pushing out to move beyond the idea of race or colour limiting you to a certain story you can tell - so it doesn’t have to be all black or all white or Asian. We all have shared emotional experiences across cultures and religions. At this time in Britain we need to emphasise that across cuItures, religions, colours we have these deeply common experiences of wanting to love and be loved and make a good family life.”

I couldn’t agree more. I was left feeling excited about seeing this play which will be all the more intimate for being put on at TBTL’s wonderful studio theatre. We ended with Charlotte telling me I need to bring the women in my family and that I won’t regret it. I think she’s probably right.

‘My Mother Said I Never Should’ by Charlotte Keatley plays in Theatre by the Lake’s Studio theatre from 23 May until 30 October. For more information and to book tickets visit or call the Box Office on 017687 74411.