A contemporary new production of Amanda Whittington’s Be My Baby has opened at Leeds Playhouse. Playing now until Saturday 1 June, Be My Baby marks the end of the Pop-Up Season at the Playhouse, created whilst the main theatre building undergoes a capital redevelopment.
Production images reveal the all-female ensemble company of Leeds Playhouse performing the touching production. Designed by the award-winning Amanda Stoodley (Europe, Around The World in 80 Days, Leeds Playhouse), the production gives a nod to the 1960s weaving in a well-known soundtrack to a story of innocence and hope set in a maternity home for unmarried young, pregnant women.
19-year old Mary is seven months pregnant when her mother delivers her into the charge of St Saviours. As Mary, Dolores, Queenie and Norma bond over music, they begin to understand what it means to give their children to the Welfare Service and Mary realises she must fight to take her baby home.
The female Ensemble Company is Tessa Parr fresh from her role in the critically acclaimedHamlet. She’s joined by Anna Gray as Norma, Jo Mousley as Mrs Adams, Crystal Condie as Queenie, Simona Bitmate as Mary and Susan Twist as Matron.
Be My Baby is produced in association with Mind the Gap Theatre Company and plays in Leeds Playhouse’s Pop-Up theatre, in association with SOYO Leeds, until 1 June.
The last show in Leeds Playhouse’s pop-up theatre is almost defined by missed opportunities. On its surface a story about young women being pressured into giving up their children for adoption against their will due to the societal pressures of the early 60s could really have had some real emotional weight; but this particular production never really gets there.
The story uses the slightly tired trope of placing a middle class protagonist into a setting that would be unusual for them, as though a theatre audience couldn’t possibly understand the point of view of anyone else. We follow Mary (Simona Bitmate) a 19 year old from a “good family” who has managed to hide her pregnancy from her family for 7 months and after confessing to her mother has been secretly placed in a home for unmarried women. Under the care of The Matron (Susan Twist) she will work in the laundry with 3 other young women; Queenie (Crystal Condie ), a working class lass who longs to be a singer; Dolores (Tessa Parr), a kind but naive and girl who holds onto her Romantic ideals; and Nora (Anna Gray), a young woman with learning disabilities who doesn’t like to talk about her past. As they all wait for the secret birth of, and separation from, their children.
The production is clearly intended to be mix of high drama, humour and musical nostalgia; but it just comes off as being tonally confused. Never committing hard enough to any of these elements for them to pay off that well. I just couldn't provide either gut wrenching emotional scenes, or a particularly memorable laugh out loud moment. Overly relying on a joke at our characters expense whereby they don’t really know what childbirth entails, a lot of the humour didn’t really land for me.
This show is visually and stylistically very sparse. Amanda Stoodley’s design offering up a grey aesthetic evoking the austere, puritan surroundings of the home that these young women inhabit. Hard cubic slab-like “beds” dominate the stage, but rather than working as a symbol for the overall discomfort of the situation they have been decked out in LED lights that make them reminiscent of a boy racer’s dream car. A somewhat peculiar decision that undercuts the severity of the of overall look. Needless to say I was longing for some sort of visual flair that could cut through and heighten a key moment in some way. The closest we got to this was during the climactic moments of the show where Mary is giving birth. There’s a bizarre sequence in which the action stops, she is positioned in a stark spotlight and slowly reaches up toward the light - then matter of factly removes her prosthetic pregnancy bump, sits down and is handed her “baby”. It doesn’t reference any other part of the show, it didn’t tell me anything about how she was feeling, it was just jarring and odd.
Jarring and odd sums up a lot of the decisions made in this show. Chiefly the use of music. Very clearly the characters talk about music as escapism and a lifeline, especially for the character of Queenie who becomes very distressed at one point at the thought of losing access to a record player; but in the show these saccharine pop songs from the early 60s about love and marriage seem to just bookend scenes. The cast perform them well, but I never felt like this was a ray of light in our characters lives, in fact those characters were just dropped for a bit to indulge in a musical interlude.
Which is all a shame because this cast is clearly capable of a lot more if they had been given the opportunity. For example Susan Twist has a towering and imposing presence as The Matron, whose control could have been felt throughout the show a lot more. Offering an austere, Nurse Ratched-esque antagonist whose control we all hope that our cast of young women can break free from; but the show doesn’t really portray that. In fact for much of the show they seem to have relative autonomy and freedom which runs counter to the story that’s being told. Similarly Anna Gray, an actor with learning disabilities herself, was brought into the Playhouse’s ensemble to lend authenticity to the portrayal of Norma. Throughout the show she shows really striking emotional range in her performance but for some reason she is introduced to the audience in a manner that is almost tailor made not to play to any of her strengths: reading from a medical textbook, where the dense language was an unwelcome barrier to her portrayal of the character.
To sum up Be My Baby is a bit of a drab, lifeless production, that leans on nostalgic music to carry people’s attention. It never feels like anyone involved in making it really got to grips with why they were telling this story right now. So it ended up feeling like it wasn’t really about anything.
Be My Baby, Leeds Playhouse’s Pop-Up theatre
11 May – Sat 1 June, Press Night Thursday 16th May, 7.30pm
Box office 0113 213 7700. Book online leedsplayhouse.org.uk
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