Eighties' play gets revival in York

A revival of the 1985 play My Mother Said I Never Should comes to York next week. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports.

Scenes from the latest revival of Charlotte Keatleys play My Mother Said I Never Should which comes to York Theatre Royal next week. (Pictures: Sheila Burnett).

We do, as I will never tire of saying, create world class theatre in Yorkshire.

It is, however, sometimes worth taking a look at work made outside of the region that comes to our stages.

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Next week York Theatre Royal plays host to the classy London Classic Theatre, a company founded in 1993 to stage European classics for the London Fringe. Since 2000 it has also toured the nation staging the kind of plays still studied in classrooms around the country.

The company is coming to York with a new production of Charlotte Keatley’s 1985 drama My Mother Said I Never Should. A play that I last saw at what was then the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2005, it is one that is revived fairly regularly, but is always worth a look when it does come around again.

Said to be the most commonly performed play by a female playwright, it won Keatley the George Devine Award, the Manchester Evening News Award for best play and a nomination for an Olivier Award. It has since been translated into 22 languages – hence the most performed play accolade.

The play details the lives of four women through the social changes of the 20th century. Playing with time, the story takes four generations of one family and examines those changes through the lens of their lives. Keatley says the play is not autobiographical; it features a teenage pregnancy at its heart and, she points out, she didn’t have a child until she was in her 30s.

She says: “I never write directly from my life, as I think it’s my job to be a human Hoover: I listen and watch hundreds of people over time, and slowly absorb what people fear, or hope, or want to solve in their lives.

“I write a play as a way to explore this, and develop the characters as I write. This play came out of watching the new opportunities and pressures on women which I saw in the 1970s and 80s. I had far more choice as a 25-year-old than the 80-year-old woman next door ever had for her life. I set about inventing four generations of women who all made different choices. It was a decade later before I had my daughter, and now she’s at university. Recently I cleared my parents’ house after my mum died. So now the scenes in the play which show these things make me cry. I think I could only write a play spanning so much when I was at the beginning of my adult life, and observed it all as an outsider.”

Keatley began her career as a journalist, writing about theatre for The Yorkshire Post among other publications. In 1985 My Mother Said I Never Should, which went on to be named one of the Significant Plays of the Twentieth Century, marked a turning point in her career and she has gone on to write for television and for the RSC.

As well as writing, she continues to run workshops to encourage other people, particularly women, to turn their hands to scripts.

She says: “I’m not called a “woman playwright” nowadays but a “playwright”. There are now many great plays written by women in the UK. But very few women across history wrote plays until the last 50 years, so many conventions about theatre are still those defined by a male point of view, such as what subjects or characters define good plays. What’s encouraging is how many theatre companies are now finding and staging great plays by women with parts for women – and men – which smash the old stereotypes.”

As with many in the arts, Keatley does have concerns for the future.

“What is worrying is that the cost of drama schools and colleges is so high now, we’re getting only a privileged range of young people who can afford to enter theatre. It is the voices of outsiders, especially in playwriting, which break the mould and re-invent theatre, as I did.

“It’s scary to do, that’s why I’ll run workshops in places in the community if I can, where there 
may be someone with a new voice who needs to be heard and encouraged.”

The world, she believes, hasn’t changed a huge amount since 1985.

“There are still very few plays which show women’s lives as they really are – the day to day, “ordinary” lives, not women being super detectives or political heroines, but the less visible way in which women really can change society: how we raise the next generation, a pretty massive responsibility, but one which is still not seen as a hugely important ‘job’.

“Look how media comment on whether women politicians, Olympic athletes, film stars, company managers have children or not, how they manage that or not. Men aren’t defined by this.”

Like her play, it seems that Keatley still has much to say to the current generation.

My Mother Said I Never Should, York Theatre Royal, November 20 to 24. Tickets 01904 623568 or www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk