Moving but imperfectly executed drama about the forced deportation of British children to Australia.
There are few things more moving, it turns out, than the sight of an elderly woman presenting her grown-up son with the first birthday cake of his life. Add chocolate buttons, one candle and a faltering verse of ‘Happy Birthday!’ and you’ve totally got us – even if the surrounding production sometimes tries to push us away.
Reverberating through Aussie Tom Holloway’s play, and disturbing its timeline, is a shocking fact of history. After WWII, thousands of poor and orphaned British children were told they had no relatives and sent to live in brutal institutions in Australia – a continuation of the Empire’s shameful 1888 Home Children scheme. Subsequent decades of official denial heaped further damage, delaying the work of the Child Migrants Trust to reunite victims with their families.
‘Forget Me Not’ imagines one mother and son whose lives this policy has traumatised. Gerry (soap actor Russell Floyd) is a broken bear of a man, made distrustful of love, domesticity and the kindness of strangers. Mary is a working-class Liverpudlian, played against type by Eleanor Bron in her first stage role in more than a decade. Facing each other across her sitting room, they are still continents apart.
In fact there are two Marys. One is bent over an oxygen tank and threatens to resituate the testicles of the goodhearted man from Child Migrants Trust. The other shines with fresh-lit love and sadness as she watches Gerry blow out his first candle. Holloway’s play is both a tribute to the work of the Trust and an insistence on the irreversible damage done. In the end, its tricksy form steals even the imperfect reunion away from Gerry.
This European premiere, co-produced by the Bush and HighTide Festival Theatre suffers from Floyd’s lack of range and a horribly heavy-handed soundtrack. But Sarah Ridgeway is strong as Gerry’s daughter, whose grief for her mother sets her father’s investigation into his past in motion. A striking set flanks the stage with floor-to-ceiling concrete pillars. They suggest the building boom changing Mary’s Liverpool, the dust and deprivation of Gerry’s Australia, and a forest of branchless and calcified family trees.