Sometimes things go awry. Sometimes, in the thick of an exceptionally frantic week of theatregoing and writing about theatregoing, a reviewer doesn’t prove as thoroughgoing as he might. Ought. But anyone can make mistakes. Right? And so it was that, before scooting off to southern Thailand for a much needed, long overdue holiday, right in the thick of things, amid the fog of war fought valiantly with the beast of literary burden, I forgot to write up Forget Me Not. I know. Forgot. The irony is almost too chuckle-worthy; which can only but add to the extremity and profanity of my embarrassment.
Of course, there’s nothing much chuckle-worthy about Belvoir’s soon-to-end, current, Upstairs co-production (with The Liverpool Everyman), written by Tom Holloway and dedicated to The Child Migrants Trust, directed by Anthea Williams and featuring Mandy McElhinney, Colin Moody, Eileen O’Brien and Oscar Redding.
It begins with an awkward encounter and silence, between Mary and Gerry. Mary is the elderly mother who came home to find her son kidnapped by the powers-that-be, a routine practice at the time. For all she knew, he was sent to a “better” family which, given the poverty of single motherhood, was something she could rationally, if not emotionally, reconcile. Gerry is the son, a man in his 60s who has long believed his mother to be dead. His grief around his lack of identity and family has tainted (or ruined, or completely capsized) his entire life and poisoned his relationships, not least with himself and the bottle.
While the silence I describe is, within the play, awkward, from the outside, peering in, it’s revitalising and intensifying. While the likes of Shakespeare can make language glorious, the sound of silence, one’s reminded, can be most eloquent. Neither playwright nor director has lived in fear of it: they embrace and exploit its expressive possibilities in the fullest. This silence not only concentrates the drama, but one’s own focus. For example, it afforded space-time ‘nough to reflect this is one of Belvoir’s finest productions in a while. (And that’s saying something, right?) In fact, it’s probably one of Belvoir’s best-ever, even given the notoriety of memory as the key tool in calibrating such judgements.
Eileen O’Brien is Mary who, as the underclass must, has battled on, doing the best she can, trying to content herself with a myth: that the government-sanctioned abduction of her child provided him with a life of relative privilege she couldn’t have. In the first scene, which charts an encounter never realised (as becomes tragically clear later in the play), we find ourselves inside Mary’s humble home, in her quaint, quiet living room, almost a museum; the kind, like one’s grandparents’, where about all that can heard is the loud ticking of a mantle clock, which seems to mark more time more slowly and deliberately. But we’re not only inside Mary’s living room, but her cobwebbed heart, thanks to O’Brien’s immersion in her character, which so completely embraces us.
Colin Moody is Gerry and one of that exclusive coterie of actors Belvoir seems to keep locked-up in a small bureau (notwithstanding the scale of the man), along with a handful of others, young and older. I’ve complained of this nepotism, I think, before, but none can complain about the casting on this occasion: while he by no means has it to himself, it’s very much Moody’s play. He fills Gerry’s shuffling, world-weary, worn-and-torn slippers with a lumbering smoulder, for here is a man whose fire has all but burned out. And yet, there’s something incendiary about him. He’s a time-bomb, set to explode at any moment. It’s probably the best stage vehicle Moody’s ever had, the one in which he’s been least typecast and for which Williams deserves great credit in recognising what Moody, specifically, could bring to this role, which is a latent, seething moodiness, as well as sheer Moodiness.
He’s estranged from his daughter Sally (McElhinney), who he’s treated shabbily. His key relationship is with the aforementioned bottle, but neither has it treated him well and even that nexus has become fraught, as he battles to beat it; albeit, perhaps, not hard enough. Certainly not hard enough from Sally’s standpoint. Her faith, hope and tolerance is running as dry as a cask of Gerry’s goon. Despite this and herself, she accommodates and supports her long, lost father in every possible way, including extending her home to him. She owes him nothing, but gives him everything, because she sees the man that might’ve been, that might yet be, behind the sad mask. McElhinney wavers, waxes and wanes, rollercoasting from tenderness to frustration; anger to compassion. It’s been the lot of women, whether lovers, wives, or daughters, for a long time and she wears it such that we recognise the generality as much as the particularity.
Williams and cast bring a rare, collective empathy to Holloway’s play. They’re all on the same page. All the time. It’s almost as if they’d written it. It lingers and pauses. It hovers and hangs. It menaces and agitates. Resisting the seeming fashion among young directors to fill every space with an effect, trick or technological gimmick, this director stakes everything on the audience’s capacity to think and feel, as much as the playwright’s. She deploys a feather, where some might’ve wielded a sledgehammer. It shows faith in herself. And her audience.
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Forget Me Not reminds us of yet another unfortunate chapter in our recent history. In accepting Britain’s “orphans”, we were complicit and culpable, criminal associates. The parallels with our own stolen generations are chilling. Lest we forget.
The details: Forget Me Not plays Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre until May 19. Tickets on the company website.