Theatre review - My Mother Said I Never Should, Theatre by the Lake

Theatre by the Lake (TBTL) have kicked off their summer season in the studio theatre with Charlotte Keatley’s highly acclaimed story of four generations of women.

The most performed play by a female playwright and translated into 22 languages, 'My Mother Said I Never Should' spans many decades taking us from WWII to the 80s. The production is profound and uplifting in equal measure.

Various scenes take us back and forth in time, so we see all four grow from childhood to adulthood with Doris (played by Maggie O'Brien) becoming mother, grandmother and great grandmother eventually, but not necessarily in that order. Despite the non-linear plot line, there is actually a story which runs coherently throughout, ultimately leading to the big reveal of a secret kept by the three mothers. More important however, are the themes central to the play which could, perhaps, be summed up as a study in the relationships between mothers and daughters. More specifically, the play makes us look at the seemingly universal feeling of never being quite good enough - indeed, the title itself alludes to the importance of this.

It would be easy for such a play to turn into a tirade about how awful parents are - it even begins with all four characters as girls playing a game of 'kill your mother' - but Keatley writes authentically making these portrayals much more than two-dimensional. It is fascinating to see how differently they behave depending on whether they interact as a daughter, a mother or a grandmother. In the background, never seen, are two male characters. I braced myself for these to be the source of all angst, but even here the characters are carefully and truthfully presented in all their muddiness. No one is painted black and white here.

I may not entirely feel the depth of this play the way a woman might, but as a son and father to a daughter, I can understand something of the bigger picture. Keatley has succeeded in capturing the everyman (everyperson?) experience: this family is my family. It really is. I recall similar conversations and attitudes either directly or through watching my grandmother, my mother, my sister and then, later, my wife and daughter interacting. It was uncanny how scenes matched up; listening as I left the theatre, I overheard other audience members saying the same. Keatley is one of those rare writers who manages to connect with us all, at least in part.

That said, a play stands or falls on the strength of the performers. This all-female cast is superb. Not only are costume changes at breakneck speed but each one requires an age change without the aid of make-up or wigs. Somehow, they manage to look younger or older in an instant - Emily Pithon, playing Jackie, being especially good at this. In terms of acting quality, I can't single one out. Humour, pathos, childlike innocence, adult pessimism and, above all, love, shine out of the players without breaking the illusion for a second.

This is production is a tearjerker for sure. But unlike most plays which milk the melodrama, 'My Mother Said I Never Should' is truly uplifting, leaves you looking deeply and seriously at your own family, but simultaneously makes you grateful for what you've had too. Don't miss it.

'My Mother Said I Never Should' is showing at Theatre by the Lake's studio theatre until 30 October. To find out more call the Box Office on 017687 74411 or visit