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Mother Courage and Her Children review at Southwark Playhouse, London – ‘an ordeal’

Julien Moore, Jake Phillips and Josie Lawrence in Mother Courage and Her Country at Southwark Playhouse, London. Photo: Scott Rylander Julien Moore-Cook, Jake Phillips Head and Josie Lawrence in Mother Courage and Her Country at Southwark Playhouse, London. Photo: Scott Rylander
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Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 play has been called the best play of the 20th century. That’s not immediately evident in this production, which relies entirely on an excellent central performance from Josie Lawrence to hold it all together.

She plays the eponymous Courage, desperately trying to make ends meet and keep her three children safe during a horrific war. Lawrence has a huckster charm; she is roguish and likeable in the role. As she barters with desperate people in order to flog her wares, she tries every trick in the book: jokes, threats, prayers. Lawrence can switch mood in an instant and she maintains a breathless energy throughout as her cheerful, make-do attitude turns to panic and despair. At one point, when her son Swiss Cheese dies, she screams in silent agony. It’s a huge performance.

But that’s where the good stuff ends in this three-hour plus show. It’s not alienating because it’s Brechtian, it’s alienating because of its dodgy performances, strange directorial decisions and lack of coherence.

Despite the traverse staging, large chunks of action take place on a mezzanine above and behind half of the audience. Some strain their necks to see what’s happening, others give up. It’s a bizarre choice.

Various concepts come and go like unexploded ordinances: the scaffolding and muddy tarpaulins surrounding the space suggest one thing, the costumes another, and Duke Special’s music – composed for the 2009 National Theatre production – something else besides.

While Tony Kushner’s 2006 translation is plenty aphoristic and eminently quotable on the hellishness of war, director Hannah Chissick seems to struggle to keep control of a huge, unwieldy play. Lawrence’s contribution aside, this is one hell of an ordeal.

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An ordeal of a production partially salvaged by a strong central performance from Josie Lawrence