Nina (Sophie Melville) is exhausted – but then again, aren’t all new mothers? Her 12-week-old son Ben is spending the night with her husband and his mother Pearl (Denise Black) for the first time and Nina’s finally getting a moment to herself. Her clothes are unwashed, hair in a dirty bun, teeth uncleaned, as she rails at her friend, NHS natal health worker Jackie (Cat Simmons), about the struggles of parenting. “I didn’t know I could both love and hate something so fully, with my full body,” she says. “Not hate him, no, not hate him… hate the experience, you know?”
The conversations that play out in the opening scene of Mum, the new show from Emilia writer Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, are instantly recognisable. “This is normal,” Jackie tells her, Nina knocking back glasses of wine and ranting about feeling inadequate compared to the Bugaboo-pushing mums who “have their s*** together”. But a manic glint in her eye suggests that something more sinister lurks beneath. There’s not sleeping, then there’s not sleeping for longer than a three-hour stretch for 12 weeks. And then the line comes, hidden among her other comments: “I get why people shake their babies.”
As the events of the play unspool, the unthinkable happens: Ben has a fit while staying with his grandparents and the doctors find old injuries on his body. Nina is beside herself, but insistent that she never did anything wrong. A giant mobile hangs above the stage, three perspex clouds slowly rotating and making the adults beneath feel like kids themselves. Had things really gone this far? Is she capable of hurting her own child? We want to believe that Nina couldn’t have harmed her baby, that she made those comments to Jackie because that’s what people say when they’re tired or stressed or drunk, but it’s unclear. Information is dropped in that only muddles the situation – the birth was traumatic, her husband is a useless man-baby and her mum died weeks before Ben was born.
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