Seventy-seven-year-old US stage and screen legend Stockard Channing (‘The West Wing’ ‘Grease’ etc) would be a casting coup for any theatre even in normal times – so she’s a real prize for the intimate Hampstead Theatre at the tail-end (touch wood) of a pandemic.
I just wish I could be more enthusiastic about the show that’s lured her out here. Marsha Norman’s ‘’night, Mother’ is the latest play in Hampstead’s endlessly interrupted seventieth birthday season, and, like all the other shows, it has a historic connection with the theatre, having had its UK premiere here back in 1985. It remains an interesting, idiosyncratic piece. But in Roxanna Silbert’s dramatically inert production it’s also a real chore.
It begins strong, with an impressively disconcerting first few minutes. We’re at a remote house in the rural States and elderly Thelma (Channing) and her daughter Jessie (Rebecca Night) prattle away to each other with a comfortable, familiar, pitter-patter rhythm, the chatter of two people who live so wholly in each other’s pockets that they communicate solely in mundane observations and things they’ve already said to each other a thousand times: a companionable domestic buzz. But there’s something off about some of what Jessie is saying: what is the messy thing she is going to do in her bedroom that requires her to put old towels down? And why is she asking after the location of her late father’s gun?
‘The play is served up dead straight, dry as a bone, totally unseasoned’
It’s not long until she comes out with it: she is going to kill herself. She finds life intolerable and wants it to stop. Thelma is agog and seems not to know how to take it. Jessie is briskly insistent she’s going to end things, all the while rattling through the housework and firing off a checklist of stuff her mum will need to do in her absence. Even as Jessie prepares to exit this world, the two women’s mutual dependency is writ large.
Given a very different production – funnier, or more menacing, or more emotive, or with more to cling on to dramatically in any form – I think this play might really have something, and presumably it did back in 1985. But Silbert serves it up dead straight, dry as a bone, totally unseasoned: it’s just Ti Green’s open-plan set, with no fancy sound, or light, or anything.
Presented as serene naturalism, it just drifts on from the initial revelation without really building. Night’s Jessie continually restates her intent to die in a calm monotone while Channing’s Thelma remains compassionately perplexed and queasily guilt-stricken, but doesn’t really freak out about the whole thing. They deeper into Jessie’s reasoning, but it never gets particularly fraught. Sometimes it reaches the emotional pitch of an argument over getting a tattoo. There are a few terrific, poignant lines that really cut through. But it shows us most of what it has in the first half-hour and then spends its remainder circling over the same ground.
It’s admirable that Channing traversed the Atlantic to star in a play that’s hardly awards-bait. I imagine the subject was much more of a taboo-buster in the pre-Sarah Kane era. I can see how this might amount to something pretty powerful, given a totally different production. It’s an almighty subject. But the treatment here is numbing, verging on dull.