Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Review: Where's Your Mama Gone

One of the things that struck me when I was a publishing student was the understanding that the white space around text on a page is as important as the black squiggles that form the words. So what struck me when walking out of Where’s Your Mama Gone was what wasn't said in the play which is as important and powerful as the words of spoken by the cast of six at the Carriageworks in Leeds.

The play is only half the story and it is the questions and thoughts that leave with you out of the door that are almost as important to the work as the performance itself – but this is only possible by experiencing the play. The set also has this quality - A plain black stage, with black chairs and harsh white lighting, focusing attention on the players and their words without distraction.

There was an added dimension during the performance. Richard McCann.

Richard is the son of Wilma McCann, the first of the Yorkshire Ripper’s victims and it was his book Just A Boy that inspired Brian Daniels to write the play. It was what Richard didn't say as he quietly left the auditorium that was important. A tacit approval, a shared experience and slight smile at the end of what must have been a deeply moving experience for him. On Twitter he commented that it was a: “Bloody powerful play, for me and some of the acting was extremely close to reality.”

The play, set in Leeds, tells the story of non-identical twins Stephen and Carol and the effect the murder of their mother. It deals with how they deal with the stigma of being “Kath Connor's” and how there life was dominated by what was missing and unseen. The flip side of the play shows the story of a serial killer, his motivations and his background.

While there is a macabre interest in the serial killer, it is a tough subject and yet it is surprisingly unusual to have a work focusing on the aftermath and the individual.

Having only had a few previews, Charlie Harrison and Emma Gordon have developed a powerful on stage relationship in the lead roles. Despite the deliberate physical mismatch, there quickly becomes a genuine family bond and togetherness which allowed the pair to create a microcosm of their own on stage. A protective bubble that sees the other characters interacting with their world rather than with the twins as individuals. Like the proton and the neutron, they get agitated the closer they are, yet the more distant they are, gravity brings them back together.

The timeline is mixed but the story flowing, taking you on the journey through their lives but losing the sense of stability and home, what Brian Daniels' calls heritage. Loss is a big part of the work and the characters spend most of the play searching for faint memories and something that isn’t there. Most of the Dialogue is delivered in monologue, interrupting the action and giving the innermost thoughts of the characters. But even in the monologue there is a feeling you aren’t getting the whole story. The feeling that Stephen and Carol cannot be honest about what lurks in the dark part of their mind.

Brian Daniels acknowledges there are more themes running through the play than you can deal with, but that is a consequence of the situation rather than a desire to cram more in. Serial killers, institutionalisation, care homes, abuse, broken homes, community, loss, family ties, addiction, domestic violence, drugs and more are touched upon. The way Carol jokes about being beaten and sexually abused by her father in a throw away comment could almost be the subject for a play in itself. But it is just a phrase within a sentence - the white space on the page.

The play turns on a scene between the Serial Killer and twin Stephen during a prison visit. Will Fox gives a compelling performance as Peter Sutton. He walks a fine line between normality and madness. It would be easy to ham up the performance of such an obvious villain, but there is just a hint of something not right which makes his performance chilling. It is the similarities he has with the twins that are as disturbing as the differences.

The twin’s mother haunts the play. Carolyn Eden plays her character on stage and you get the feeling she is of her time background. Again, there is a fine line in her character between caring mother and street worker.

Seeing Christa Ackroyd in the play as herself also adds an interesting dimension. Having trained as a journalist in Leeds and worked the patch, I met a lot of journalists who worked at the time of the ripper and a few policemen. She is someone who experienced the fear of the ripper as a young female reporter, not only a potential victim, but someone talking to the victims’ families.

Like the play, there’s a lot to cover and there is a danger of over running. However, Brian Daniels' play feels slightly unfinished. Again, this is deliberate. You could add twenty more minutes and the feeling would be the same. The characters will carry on being haunted the whole of their life, but the ray of hope offered is how they chose to accept their legacy and deal with their emotions.

A new play with limited stage time means there will be more improvement and development. The scene changes need smoothing out as the flow often slipped between scenes. I’d also liked to have seen more use of the sound effects used very well but so sparingly. The comic relief is needed and needs polishing to bring it to the forefront. But these are small gripes and it will be interesting to see the show closer to the end of its run.

Where’s Your Mama Gone isn’t a performance you watch as pure entertainment but it is an experience worth going through. After the applause, you can tell it has made people think as the normal chatter is replaced with near silence as they contemplate what they’ve seen.The play runs until the 28th May at The Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds.

Some of the issues tackled can be summed up in Richard McCann's self written article here.


  1. Hi Thomas - thank you for your interesting and thoughtful review of 'Where's Your Mama Gone'. When I originally started work on the play I met with Richard McCann on several occasions. He was anxious that his story was not sensationalised (there's been too much of that) and was handled sensitively. I believe our cast, director and me as the writer succeeded at this. I had a very positive and congratulatory e-mail from Richard this morning. You are right, the play does touch upon a lot of issues - but in many underclass family backgrounds there is a lot to contend with - and not only underclass backgrounds. It seems though that the play gave you and I hope others an insight into this tragic story and how it is possible sometimes to triumph over adversity - but the pain of the past never leaves us. Brian Daniels

  2. Thanks for taking the time to respond to the review and I',m glad my impressions of the play echo with your intentions.