Reviewed – 28th October 2021
“has a harrowing complexity, exposing the emptiness that manifests itself as ordinariness”
“If I’d known you were going to act like this, I wouldn’t have told you” complains Jessie to her mother mid-way through Marsha Norman’s one act play, “’Night, Mother”. On the surface it’s a fairly run of the mill, snappy remark for a thirty something divorcee, living once again in her mother’s house. Although what she has told her, quite casually, is that she is going to kill herself. We know by now she isn’t joking; but with a punchline as shattering as that so early on it is hard to know where to go from here. But this play covers plenty of ground within the confines of ‘Mama’ Thelma’s mid-American country home, thanks to Norman’s contemplative yet penetrative writing. And two outstanding and moving performances from Stockard Channing as emotionally charged ‘Mama’, and Rebecca Night as the matter of fact, bloodless, Jessie.
“Where’s Daddy’s gun?” It’s a throwaway question as the two characters wade through the clutter of domestic routine, the lightweight delivery belying the Chekhovian gravity of the dialogue. There is a moment when we think we might be in for an evening of cheerlessness, but the rich humour that courses through this piece keeps it warm and alive. There are many times we laugh, but they are guilty laughs, aware of the seriousness of the issues that are tackled. No life lessons are learned but the way we view the veneer of our comfort and privilege are questioned. Mother and daughter seem happy enough. Yes, their lives are mundane, but they are cosy. Or so it seems. The conversational tone of the drama cuts deep and the scalpels that slice through the heart clearly reveal the ways in which people can hurt each other.
“If you’ve got the guts to kill yourself, you’ve got the guts to stay alive”. Channing beautifully morphs from dismissiveness to desperation as she ploughs her energy into dissuading her daughter from carrying out the final act. We will her on, gripped by her performance. Jessie, the daughter, is the harder role to convey but Night handles the clashes and conflicts of a damaged soul with a natural skill. It is almost impossible to sympathise with the character, yet we do. Jessie, an epileptic since a horse-riding accident, has been suicidal for nearly ten years. “I came off the horse because I didn’t know how to hold on” carries an intense metaphoric weight. She has lost her sense of ‘self’ without hope of reclaiming it, yet the paradox is that she is not selfless in any way. It can be argued that her intentions are the most selfish of all. Night’s performance is such that you simultaneously accept and reject her predicament – a paradox that runs through the whole text.
“I can’t stop you ‘cause you’re already gone”. Channing is the one to win us over ultimately. Her concern drifts from what will happen to her, to a heart-rending resignation to the fact that she might not be able to save her daughter. Roxana Silbert’s meticulous direction, which brings out the realism, keeps us on the edge of our seat.
“How could I know you were so alone?” Mother and Daughter were with each other all the time, yet the parting question epitomises the problem. “’Night Mother” has a harrowing complexity, exposing the emptiness that manifests itself as ordinariness, and highlights the many relevant issues that surround mental illness today. That it can do this in such an entertaining and engrossing way is testament to Norman’s writing and the exceptional skill, charisma and sensitivity of Channing and Night, who hold the stage throughout.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Marc Brenner
Hampstead Theatre until 4th December
Previously reviewed at this venue: