Added dimension to a contemporary classic at the Crucible

Since its premiere more than 30 years ago, Charlotte Keatley’s play, My Mother Said I Never Should, has become a contemporary classic which is regularly performed.

Tuesday, 29th October 2019, 10:46 am
Updated Wednesday, 30th October 2019, 1:50 pm
Jude Mahon, Ali Briggs, Lisa Kelly and EJ Raymond in rehearsals for My Mother Said I Never Should at Sheffield Theatres

But the production about to open in the Crucible Studio is different from any that have gone before. It is being performed by a cast of d/Deaf and hearing actors in British Sign Language and spoken English,

Shifting back and forth in time, the play depicts the lives of four generations of women in one family, as their loves, expectations and choices play out against the huge social changes of the past century.

So has this version required much re-writing? “It’s not re-written, it’s a kind of translation,” according to Charlotte Keatley. “So Jeni Draper (the director) and I and the actors are forging it, let’s say.”

Writer Charlotte Keatley in rehearsals for My Mother Said I Never Should at Sheffield Theatres

What they discovered is that some of the lines can be conveyed visually rather than in words. The playwright was struck by how a Deaf person communicates visually aside from using British Sign Language.

“And that’s the next language, my words converted into BSL which I don’t understand but I can see it’s used much more directly. My lines in BSL are often shorter and more direct. BSL is very imagistic too,” she says, adding that for audiences there will be a projection of the text as well as spoken dialogue.

It was Jeni Draper who had the idea of doing the play with Deaf actors. After workshopping it the playwright came to realise it was in many ways even more powerful because so much of the play is about communication. “Communication between generations is a problem as we all know,” she says with a rueful laugh. “When it is difficult to communicate it makes it more powerful.”

“Jeni has also been clever about casting so through the four generations there are people who can hear a bit, speak a bit, who signs and who doesn’t so some are easier to talk to than others and that ups the stakes in a way and has actually made it more dramatic which is really exciting and interesting.”She was aged 25 when she wrote My Mother Said but says she wouldn’t write it any differently now she is older.

Charlotte Keatley, writer of My Mother Said I Never Should

“ I don’t think I could really. I think it’s the kind of play where you have to be at the beginning or the end of your life. see now It’s a bit spooky that I seemed to know so much, I wasn’t even a mother then. As a writer you just have to listen to people and put yourself .

“I couldn’t write it at any other time of my life because I would be in the middle of doing it whereas I was looking ahead. I don’t think I would have dared write such emotional scenes because I hadn’t lived them.”Since premiering in 1987 at Contact Theatre in Manchester and going on to the Royal Court in London My Mother Said has been seen across the world from Japan to Peru.

“It is a kind of phenomenon which over the years has just grown and grown and across the world and I am incredibly moved,” she continues citing a letter from a Chinese student and a social media post from a young Muslim man in Manchester .

“I thought how amazing that it seems to mean a lot to the youngest generation which is brilliant because I think a lot of what it’s about is how to lead the life you want to. It’s very moving and humbling.”

After spending the best part of 12 years bringing up her daughter and looking after dying parents she says she is entering a new phase of writing with three or four plays in development.

“To be honest I don’t earn a living from the theatre, I rent out bits of my house. But what a great life to have,” she says.

Even the fact that My Mother Said is a set text – “my daughter had to study it at school and was dying with embarrassment” – brings no financial reward.

“People think I must be rich and resent me for it which is silly. The richness for me is how many people respond to it.”

My Mother Said I Never Should runs at the Crucible Studio from November 8-23.