An exceptionally raw performance from young Welsh actress Sophie Melville powers this short, sharp, shocking play about motherhood. Writer Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, who resurrected a 17th-century feminist poet for her riotous 2018 hit Emilia, here spills the dark side of modern maternity: exhausted anxiety, love-hate co-dependency, what happens when your very worst fears come true.
Like Emilia, it’s schematic in places and ragged at the edges but its energy and freshness are undeniable. Abigail Graham’s stark production takes place on a stage bare apart from a jumble of baby clothes and a giant Perspex cloud mobile. Expressionistic physical enactments of birth and separation that trigger scene changes when Melville’s character Nina is in peak distress only just steer clear of parody, though.
At first, Nina seems comically OTT, emotionally dumping on her friend Jackie (Cat Simmons) on her first night off, three months after the traumatic arrival of her son Ben. Things turn darker when Ben is hospitalised while in the care of his dad David and paternal grandmother Pearl.
David remains an unnerving offstage presence, while Denise Black plays both arrogant Pearl and Nina’s own difficult mum, who died of cancer and with dementia while Nina was pregnant. Individual trauma is filtered through a wider examination of the expectations and responsibilities heaped on mothers and daughters.
Lloyd Malcolm’s script is an odd mixture of the nuanced and the obvious. The clumsiest moment is Pearl’s homily about old-school gender roles. The finest is Nina’s description of giving birth: “Like a great flood. Like precious metals and rust and everything in between... fear so strong I could hold it.”
Melville intones this extraordinary, layered speech with shining eyes and a face drawn taut with anxiety. Through the course of the evening she ranges through rage, grief, terror and despair. Even outside the dance-style climaxes, her body vibrates with tension. She leaves everything on stage. Graham could possibly have asked her to hold something back.
Theatre brims with portrayals of mothers, but I can’t call to mind another play that focuses so intensely on the visceral act of parturition and the intense months that follow. This is a bold work, then, in its subject matter and its occasional, stylised physicality, but it still has hackneyed moments.
The words of doctors, case workers, and lawyers are given cold, echo-y voice by Simmons and Black. Nina’s descriptions of young mums who make her feel inadequate sound like recitations from a tabloid problem page. It’s a bit too convenient that Jackie is an NHS professional, who can explain things to Nina and to us.
Overall Mum remains a bracing experience. Maybe don’t see it if you’re pregnant, though.
Soho Theatre, to November 20, sohotheatre.com