THEATRE / Songs my mother taught me

Leave Taking - Royal National Theatre, London

Paul Taylor
Friday 06 January 1995 01:02

One of the best moments in Leave Taking, Winsome Pinnock's drama of cross-generational conflict in a West Indian immigrant family, recruits the assistance of the poet Rupert Brooke. The mother, Enid (Jenni George), who has struggled to bring her d aughters up to think of themselves as thoroughly English, is arguing with family friend, Brod, who maintains that the two girls have "Caribbean souls" despite their never having been to the West Indies.

"Tell him who you are," she orders Ginny Holder's Viv, the brainier, exam-passing daughter, whereupon, with a mischievously proper demeanour and a parodic plumminess, as though she's taking part in some elocution contest, the girl replies: "A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware . . .

A body of England's breathing English air, Washed by the rivers, blessed by suns of home."

It's a nicely comic touch because this apparent ringing vindication of the mother in fact whips the rug right out from under her feet and you can see, as Enid's features wobble into puzzled suspicion, that a part of her knows this to be the case. True, you may wonder how often the poetry of the First World War now crops up on the syllabuses of the kind of school where Viv would go. But the moment is none the less an adroit demonstration of the disparity between Enid's scared, obsessive aspirations for her daughters, whom she has had to rear by herself, and the kind of cultural survival kit they could actually use.

Paulette Randall's revival of this 1987 play is this year's Mobile Production, mounted under the aegis of the National Theatre's Education Department. On the first night, it was still rather stiff and tentative and had a vaguely unlived-in air which failed to distract you from those moments where the dramatic technique is a bit creaky. For example, there's no reason, other than that it helps push Act 1 to a heightened close, for Enid to delay until the end of an emotionally punishing day opening the airmail letter with the guilt-inducing news that her own mother has just died in Jamaica. But the show, will doubtless warm up on the UK tour.

The catalytic figure in the piece and also its most engaging is Mai (fine Doreen Ingleton), a 60-year-old Obeah woman who reads palms and engages in various forms of witchy healing and ritual in the incongruous setting of her damp London bedsit. With he

r glossy wigs that fool no one, her weakness for stout, the chicken she keeps as "props" and her special bank holiday rates, she's a likeably scapegrace mix of the phony and the genuine. She may not be able to read people's palms but she's gone through en ough to be able to read their eyes.

Mai has found a piece of herself that has eluded Enid. Jenni George allows Enid's sweetness and the pathos to predominate so that you don't get a proper sense of the oppressiveness of her kind of self sacrifice and vicarious ambition. Nor can you see whyKaren Tomlin's Del, the rebellious daughter who is determined to have a good time but has got herself pregnant, should imagine that her mother secretly envies her defiant hedonism. To expedite the reunion of this pair at the close, Del has t

o undergo some pretty precipitate personality developments and the ending is ragged rather than reverberantly inconclusive. But it does show that what they have in common is that each of them, Enid as much as Del, feels she failed her mother. A tricky bas

is for reconciliation, yet a not unhopeful one.

n In repertory at the Cottesloe, London SE1, to 14 Jan; touring to 25 March; returning to the Cottesloe in April. Booking and tour details: 071-633 0880

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