Theatre: A mother's lot is not a happy one

Bearing Fruit Hampstead Theatre, London, NW3
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The Independent Culture
Hampstead Theatre gave a number of women dramatists the brief to write a short play on the topic of alienation. The works they got back, now to be seen in Deborah Paige's production under the umbrella title of Bearing Fruit, were all about being a mother. Same difference, apparently. The result, I'm sorry to report, is the mother of an evening.

Only one of the playlets has anything remotely resembling creative verve. In Passing Off by Lavinia Murray, a young bride (Kate Ashfield) is getting dressed for the wedding ceremony, helped by her mother. The big day is clearly happening none too soon, because the girl is having to take a hairdryer to the damp patches where she's lactating through her frock.

A pity, she comments, that the mother didn't keep her own wedding-dress, since that style is becoming fashionable again. But the mother had a good reason, she now reveals, for burning it; she'd discovered her husband wearing it.

To find out on your wedding morning that the man who is about to give you away is a transvestite might be considered a misfortune. To have him walk in modelling an identical ensemble to that of your mother (a mini- skirted apricot two-piece, high-heels, and broad-brimmed black hat) begins to look like a conspiracy. At that point, though, the play loses momentum, subsiding into a not very enlightening delve into the psychology of the cross-dresser. Thematically speaking, its a case of all dressed up and nowhere to go.

"I wish I had my life to live over. You're having my life over," the mother tells her daughter. Living vicariously through children, possessiveness, manipulation; these are the aspects of motherhood that come across most strongly from the evening. But there's dismayingly little true imaginative sympathy with what drives women to become mothers of this kind in such plays as Meredith Oakes's brittle, charity-free comedy Mind the Gap (where a spoilt middle-class woman badgers her sulky adolescent son with emotional demands, as though it were somehow remiss of him not to be her toy-boy) or Helen Edmundson's Coventry Carol, in which a religious-maniac mother, still grief-stricken at not being chosen to play Mary in a school nativity play, actually commits murder so as to ensure that her own emotionally burdened child gets to play the role in compensation.

Hampstead Theatre recently played host to a wonderful, empathetic portrait of a mother who'd had to settle for a proxy existence through a child, and the irony is that this portrait was drawn by a man, D H Lawrence, in A Collier's Friday Night.

By comparison with the richness and understanding in that, the overall title for the plays here could more aptly have been Bearing Ill Will. The two remaining works are Sara Sugarman's An Epic Ouch!, an opaque monologue by a woman who has had a stillborn child, and Hanan Al-Shaykh's Dark Afternoon Tea, a technically amateurish study of an elderly Lebanese woman in lonely English exile. If I were a woman, I wouldn't want any of these pieces to lay claim to be representative of the state of women's writing which is alive and healthy and, as the programme notes, to be found at the moment in 17 London theatres.

n To 11 March (0171-722 9301)

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