Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mine at Hampstead Theatre

I should know better by know. I should know that the tube to Swiss Cottage, that grim grey line to Hampstead Theatre, can only lead to disappointment. But time dulls past pains, one forgets, and then one glances at a flyer or a preview write-up and thinks ‘yes, I like the sound of that.’

I had seen and enjoyed past productions by Shared Experience, so their latest play Mine was not unappealing. But the curse of Hampstead Theatre continues. In Mine an unnamed, childless couple try to adopt a baby girl. They are wealthy and successful and clearly lead a life of considerable comfort while the girl’s birth mother is a drug-user and prostitute whose daughter has been taken into care while she attempts to rehabilitate herself. But all the money in the world can’t prepare them for the reality of raising a child and the arrival of this tiny, helpless person into the couple’s lives leaves them feeling exposed and unsettled.

Throughout the production there are dreamlike sequences in which an actress in a floaty white dress appears and scampers round the stage like a little girl, hiding behind furniture and playing with an ornate dollhouse. She represents both the woman’s desired daughter and her memories of her own childhood. But while this is initially interesting, it’s hard to get past the fact that this ‘child’ is being played by an adult, it’s too big a hurdle, and some of these sequences feel silly as opposed to moving or revealing.

The main problem with the production – and it’s a big one - is that there isn’t a single remotely sympathetic character on stage. The woman is joyless and her husband is a domineering, sharp-tempered, one-note sod; you find yourself questioning the social worker who entrusted these two people with a vulnerable infant. The couple is surrounded by a group of walking clichés. There’s the sister with three children of her own who worries she has forgotten how to be anything other than a mother and the housekeeper from some unspecified Eastern European country. None of these people feel real. Even Rose, the child’s mother, the character with the most potential to be interesting, is a harshly pony-tailed, tracksuit clad stereotype.

It’s such a shame as the play has some valid things to say about the way motherhood can open you up like an exposed wound, how the world suddenly becomes a more threatening, unsettling place when you have this small person to raise and care for and protect. But all this is buried under the clumsy and ugly production. There are some potentially good performances marooned in there too. Katy Stephens does what she can as the woman who has longed for a child for so long that she struggles to handle the reality when her wish is granted. And Lorraine Stephens, as the baby’s mother, somehow maintains a degree of dignity despite having to perform with her G-string riding up over her trousers as she staggers around stage, cigarette in hand.

But none of this compensates for having to sit through this turgid thing – though there is some unintentional humour to be derived from watching the actors cooing over the unnerving, tufty-headed fake baby. Shared Experience has done fine work in the past but their trademark approach feels cumbersome here. The play would have benefited from a lighter touch and less reliance on familiar theatrical tics and devices.

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