Last Updated on October 30, 2021
Marsha Norman’s 1980s play ‘night, Mother
Visiting Hampstead Theatre last night, I was especially excited to be seeing Stockard Channing, star of stage and screen, who has stacked up seven Broadway Tony nominations and a host of successful movies appearing as Thelma in Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother. Channing made a name for herself playing Rizzo in the 1978 film of Grease, I was a die-hard fan, so to be finally capturing her on the stage was an absolute joy and she didn’t disappoint.
Marsha Norman’s 1980s play ‘night, Mother won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, premiering at Hampstead in 1985, and now taking its place in the theatre’s 60th anniversary retrospective season. A film of the play was released in 1986 starring Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft.
This two-hander mother-daughter tragedy, which is reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’s dark and twisted dramas is directed by the theatre’s Artistic Director Roxana Dilbert. A little dated and dry perhaps but it still holds a powerful resonance to current mental health issues.
Taking place over one night in a domestic 80s setting in rural America, on a set designed by Ti Green which cleverly creates a handsome wooden structure providing a living room and kitchen area and a sense of what’s beyond.
Becca Night encapsulates the complexity of Jessie… a pensive, epileptic who lives with her mother after having separated from her husband, she is also estranged from her thieving, druggie son and still grieves for her father. With resolute determination, she reveals almost immediately to her mother Thelma that she is going to kill herself that evening with her father’s gun which has been gaining dust in the attic, as she finds life intolerable.
The elderly Thelma is played with compelling intensity by Stockard Channing. Naturally, Thelma is horrified by Jessie’s revelation and tries to talk her round, but soon realises that Jessie means what she says.
The woman’s complicated relationship unravels and they establish an entrenched co-dependency. Thelma reveals she never loved Jessie’s father and that he has been unfaithful to her, and also that she hid the extent of Jessie’s epilepsy to her out of shame. Jessies has meticulously planned her death down to the minute and unflinching detail, ordering shopping for her mother, leaving detailed instructions of how to do things around the house and even pre wrapping presents for Christmas’s to come.
The women talk about choosing life or death, they discover that they weren’t really giving each other any pleasure. They uncover layers of guilt, untold secrets and the lack of honesty within their relationship.
As Thelma realises there is nothing, absolutely nothing she can do to change Jessie’s decision, we see the brutal reality… she is stuck in a powerless engine of inevitability.
The final moments of the play are tense and gripping, you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium…before its inexorable conclusion.
‘night, Mother is not a bundle of joy by any means, and it is clunky at times, but the performances were fantastic and Stockard Channing, in particular, was an utter joy to watch.
Until 4 December
Tube: Swiss Cottage
Price: £18-£37. Runs 1hr 20min