Written in 1987 and performed many times since, Charlotte Keatley’s play has never been staged in the way that Sheffield Theatres and Fingersmiths tackle it here.
In Jeni Draper’s revival, three of the four women of the cast are from the D/deaf community, and it’s fascinating to see how Draper’s version employs British Sign Language (used throughout by all four actors), surtitles and voiceovers to add more layers to the play’s central theme – that of communication, and how bad families are at it.
The play moves back and forth through time from 1940 through to 1987 and introduces us to four generations of the same family. Doris is a tough matriarch; her daughter Margaret vows to concentrate on her career, but when her own daughter Jackie becomes pregnant, it’s Margaret who ends up raising the baby, Rosie, as her own.
Keatley’s play is often very funny, and the opening scene with the four actors as young children playing on wasteland contains some great moments of physical comedy. Lisa Kelly makes an impressive stage debut as the smart and funny Rosie, while Jude Mahon is particularly affecting as Margaret. EJ Raymond’s Jackie is able to convey a range of emotions just through signing.
At close to three hours, Draper’s production is on the long side and some of the scenes in the first half could definitely be tighter. The switching between subtitles, signing and voiceover (sometimes mid-scene) can be difficult to follow at times. Yet the creative use of Sophia Lovell Smith’s set and the superb quality of the performances means that this now classic text still feels resonant and fresh more than 30 years since its debut.