Bristol Theatre Reviews

Review: Oh Mother Tobacco Factory Theatres

You know that moment when you’re expecting visitors? Perhaps last minute? That frantic half hour clean of the home immediately prior to their arrival is the most speedy and efficient. The bathroom is guest ready and the toys and clutter have been put away. This is where Oh Mother opens. Except, just as we visitors arrive, we hear the carnage behind the curtain. The carefully presented home in anticipation of our arrival is a disaster. Small, unseen hands have explored bins, thrown pillows and left toys lying around.

Barely clinging on in the midst of the disaster with pained grins are Helen Goalen and Abbi Greenland. They are elegantly dressed in white Roman robes with golden headdresses. It’s the role women are supposed to be. Beautiful, well presented and domestic goddesses. But the show goes on to reveal the lie behind the myth. The pretence women have to keep up as they battle through the many rigid expectations and roles forced upon them.

When the curtain of calm perfection eventually collapses with a crash, it leaves us with a stage strewn with toppled plates, upended bins and blanketed in ball pool balls. Tidying up ball pool balls is the worst. The people who wrote this show understand the pain of the ball pool balls.

The word ‘baby’ is spelt out in large illuminated letters on stage, dominating the space as an overlord controlling everyone and everything, much like tiny babies do.

What follows, is an exploration of motherhood. It’s about being mothers, having a mother, caring and being cared for, in a circle of life. But without the Disney filter. It’s about how all those roles intersect. And though life is linear, it also circles around the life stages of others.

Using physical performances, song, recorded sound and some quite surreal moments, the show feels like the fragments of a barely remembered dream. Almost like Chris Morris’ Jam but without that darkness. What could be darkness – abortion, bereavement – is handled beautifully. Even when the co-partner is dressed as a teddy bear. But they don’t feel sentimentally sad. They come like little ghosts in quiet reflective moments.

Before discarding the mythical Roman dress, the Goddesses perform a reverent madrigal to a dishwasher, an item which throughout is very much like the fourth person on stage. The dishwasher is an object of help, a womb, a place to release the anger from domestic disputes.

The cast swap between the role of baby, child, parent or carer, much like the way we move through our own life stages. We feel the pressure at each stage.

The pressure women are under to have babies. The pressure they feel wanting to be the default parent but also expecting not to be the default parent. The pressure working whilst wanting to be with your baby. The pressure to be well presented but you can only find one shoe. There is the pressure one parent feels struggling to come to terms with their child’s gender identity. That character feels the pressure from their own vagina – Don Giovanni – played by the scampish Abbi Greenland.

This is a surreal but rock solid comedy woven together through moments of pressure, failure but most importantly the love that keeps you going. Just about.

A frenetic monologue delivered by Helen Goalen to her baby in the early hours of the morning perfectly nails that moment we have when we have no more to give yet still have to give it. Moments between adults interrupted by small unseen children vying for their attention or trying to access dangerous items – again the dishwasher. Distracting them with Pop Goes The Weasel whilst lamenting the fact that there isn’t time to batch cook and freeze – recommended in every insipid and impractical baby book ever written.

The show features some of the most realistic baby and toddler movement I’ve ever seen. Hands exploring faces, mouths, slaps, kisses. We have the unrelenting voice of the toddler demanding. The prop babies used in the show are spray painted gold. They’re like treasure, but finding treasure also brings mild peril, brief nudity and infrequent swearing – much like a 12A at the cinema.

As a backdrop to the entire mood of the show is Simone Seales on Cello. It provides a rich soundscape from banging songs to expressing raw emotion. Simone also brings into the show the conflict arising when children do not meet our expectations. Where gender identities clash against confusion of expectations held by parents still entrenched in the remains of society’s bigotry.

Importantly, there’s a lot of love at the heart of this show. Even when in the dark hours of the morning, after the relentless crying and the feeding, the nappy changes, the banality, the repetition, the depression. Even in those dark moments when everything feels awful and you feel like a terrible person, a husk of a person, there is still a lot of love.

This is a funny and uplifting show. It entertains and provokes thought about what motherhood means to you. It’s never condescending, it’s never bleak. It’s your inner voice speaking alongside the at times surreal moments and the peaks and troughs of being a mother.

Oh Mother is at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 25 June 2022

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Featured Image: The Other Richard Ⓒ