Thursday 16th May 2019 at Leeds Playhouse (Pop Up Theatre).
Four young girls from various walks of life. One thing in common: they’re knocked up in the 60s without a ring to show for it. Cue the secretive ‘home’ tucked away in some remote area where the girls are cut off from friends and family for the duration of the pregnancy. When ‘their time’ comes, they give birth before promptly returning to their lives as unsullied women – minus baby, who has been adopted, irrespective of any opinions or desires the young mother might have. And no one needs to know.
It’s this muddled world in which Amanda Whittington sets her story. We meet our four very different young mothers and see them progress from strangers to comrades and lifelines. There’s fun here alongside the inevitable moving disclosures about each girl’s back story. Mary (Simona Bitmate) is a lovely girl. Raised ‘proper’, sweet natured and intensely respectful. But she’s been bad you see, so her well to do mummy (Jo Mousley) packs her up and drops her off in the care of the efficiency queen, Matron (Susan Twist). Mary goes on to meet the fiery Queenie (Crystal Condie), the pure and innocent Norma (Anna Gray) and the darlingly dotty Dolores (Tessa Parr).
Every character has depth and this cast delivers the constant juggling of wit and pathos of Whittington’s writing very nicely. Gray’s Norma is undoubtedly pure and misled but becomes truly tragic in a whole other sense (Gray’s take is suitably more restrained and sensitive than others); Parr’s Dol is comically dipsy but also incredibly wounded (Parr is excellent, delivering humour and heartache simultaneously). Queenie isn’t as she first seems once you cut through the act and count the rings. Mary finds her feet and finally steps out of the cotton wool of her home life; Honess-Martin and cast certainly get the individual developments right.
Stand outs are Bitmate and Condie who take the most central roles. Bitmate beautifully maps out Mary’s gradual understanding of both herself and her situation in a way which makes our connection with poor Mary an absolute. She gives Mary both vulnerability and great grit and gives a performance deepened further by a moving musical number. Condie impresses as a triple threat, landing sharp one liners perfectly, bringing great drama to key scenes and gifting the production a glimpse of a gorgeous, warmly soulful voice.
Director Jacqui Honess-Martin delivers the very best thing about Whittington’s play without bells and whistles. None of the women we see are monsters (the Same can’t be said of the men mentioned but never seen). Even when their actions are clearly shocking and downright outrageous, the play forces us to see this mess of young lives compromised and changed forever from all refracted angles. It’s a play which encourages empathy beyond the central stories and this production manages to achieve what few others (that I have seen) have: the depths of the more controversial characters are thoroughly credible.
Mousley and Twist’s performances allow for the humanising of those pulling the strings as a nuanced and developed process rather than clipped insights thrown in hastily. The production doesn’t court sentimentality but it also doesn’t throw away the most significant scenes of understanding. The final scene with Matron is brilliant – done so many ways in so many tones, shapes and sizes over the years but never (speaking only of the productions that I’ve seen, naturally) more deafeningly meaningful and moving than here. You know you’re onto a winner when your audience collectively gasp!
From a technical perspective, the decidedly more modern approach to the staging of the story produces some great highlights. It strikes out on its own with an emphasis on sparky musical interludes which see our girls atop platforms singing hits of the 60s into those nostalgia-inducing mics. It’s not a musical, but considering the import Whittington places on music for the likes of Queenie and the various romantic love affairs, it’s a lovely touch. The production is also inclusively captioned which allows for a great moment of comedy early on as these innocents attempt to get to grips with the realities of pregnancy.
Amanda Stoodley’s set doesn’t settle for a carbon copy 60s floral monstrosity. The faithful 60s garb has been done. Instead, Stoodley offers a simple, almost timeless space (telephone and record player aside) with clinical undertones and little comfort. Perfect. Such a timeless set in combination with this specific story makes it worthy of note that Whittington’s story of powerless pregnant girls finds extraordinary fresh resonance against the backdrop of the latest news from across the water in Alabama. Be My Baby has its own story to tell, but shifting my focus from the news to this production brought a chill and a shiver – it may well be that we’ll be seeing a resurfacing of hushed up homes like this in the near future.
This is a sincere and considered take on Whittington’s hugely popular play which works hard to carve out fresh ground within something performed all over without much respite from the stage. All of the best elements of Whittington’s writing get their deserving polish and the creatives offer some new dimensions – the usual intensely emotive interpretations on the characters becomes something more delicate and natural here which is perhaps the real crowning glory of this production.
This production of Amanda Whittington’s Be My Baby is a Leeds Playhouse Production in association with Mind the Gap. It plays at the Leeds Playhouse Pop Up Theatre until June 1st 2019 and you can find tickets here.