Review of 'Night, Mother' at Hampstead Theatre
Marsha Normon’s 1983 Pulitzer-winning drama “‘night, Mother” returns to the Hampstead Theatre after its European premiere at the same venue in 1985. Directed by artistic director Roxana Silbert and designed by Ti Green, this two-hander explores the complicated relationship between a mother and a daughter in what would have otherwise been an ordinary, quiet evening in their isolated house in the rural American hinterlands.
Touching upon the themes of suicide, mental health and isolation, the show unfolds as a series of conversations between the two characters about a disturbing decision that awaits them, and us in the audience, at the end of the night. With measured performances by Stockard Channing and Rebecca Night, it is a hauntingly gripping experience that seeks to remind us about the sheer fragility and struggles of human existence in the context of the relationships that we carry, in our life and in our death.
The play opens with the mother Thelma (Channing) going about her usual routine whilst her daughter Jessie (Night) goes about tidying up and organizing things around the house. There’s nothing particularly unusual about the latter’s behaviour, which is why Thelma hasn’t picked on her daughter’s week and week of efforts. Jessie asks her mother where her late father’s pistol is. She finds it stored in the attic and examines it, whilst Thelma insists her to put it away and questions her intentions. Jessie tells Thelma that she intends to die by suicide at the end of the night. At first Thelma doesn’t believe Jessie and dismisses her statement as a possible side effect from her epilepsy medication, an innocuous cry for attention and even a whimsical fit to deal with the latter’s recent divorce and inability to move on with life. Jessie calmly explains how she’s been unhappy for a while and that she’s thought this decision through, having made arrangements, to-do lists and reminders for Thelma to continue living independently after her death. Jessie insisting she wants this to be a private conversation between them, not letting Thelma call an outside party for help. A desperate Thelma tries numerous tactics to convince Jessie otherwise, her tone shifting between anger, indifference, obsession and love, as Jessie recounts personal, professional and private instances from her troubled life. As the clock ticks away, we approach the imminent event, as their conversation lays bare years of secrets, admissions and feelings that give us a glimpse into the complicated relationship between the two women.
Photography by Marc Brenner
Channing’s portrayal of the mother is deeply moving, bringing out the character’s layered history with her daughter and her late husband, whom she blames for her strained relationship with the latter. Channing masterfully wrings out Thelma’s own anxieties about motherhood, highlighting her endeavour to maintain status quo and not occupy more space than what she deserves, and her regrets about not doing things differently. Night delivers a heart wrenching and powerful performance as Jessie, not only drawing attention to the character’s debilitating mental health but also balancing her resigned outlook towards the time she has left with a foreboding sense of responsibility towards everything she leaves behind. Silbert’s direction makes us focus solely on who these women are and what are they trying to say, to each other and to us, by letting the evening unfold as a series of conversations where the mundane and the momentous come in the same breath, much like real life. There is no heightened dramatic effect attributed to Jessie’s striking announcement in the beginning, nor to Thelma’s emotional loss in the end. Much like Chekhov’s gun, Jessie’s statement (and its shocking reality) hangs in the air throughout the evening and paints every conversation that follows. This is why it hits us even more, for we fill in the weight ourselves. Whereas the overall staging choices and dramatic energy might feel a bit lethargic to some, it reminds us of the life-changing incidents in our life. In the moment, they come and go without any warning or grand arrivals… we realize their visceral impact only in the aftermath of their passing.
To summarize, ‘night Mother is an arresting presentation of a family’s darkest moment. Through its understated portrayal of mental health and depression as well as strong performances by its cast, we witness just how striking the most ordinary of evenings can be.
You can watch ‘night, Mother at the Hampstead Theatre till 4th December. Learn more and book your tickets at https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2021/night-mother/
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 28th October 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★