'Mum' at Soho Theatre review - portrait of motherhood struggles to find balance
Motherhood is a rife subject for drama and high stakes. Just take a look at some of today’s popular television series like Motherland or Working Moms. It’s often dramatised on the stage, with a production of the Pulitzer winner ‘Night Mother, currently running up north at Hampstead Theatre. So Morgan Lloyd Malcom’s Mum at Soho Theatre is in good company.
Malcolm doesn’t hold anything back in this raw script about a new mother navigating life with an infant who doesn’t sleep, a prying mother-in-law, and postpartum depression. The entire play takes place from new mother Nina’s point of view, for better or for worse, as the audience is siphoned into all the intensity she feels.
Now, mothering is a medium of extremes, and Sophie Melville’s electric performance as Nina conveys that almost too well. Everything she does or says is at a level 100, and coupled with Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster’s modern movement, it almost felt like she was seizing around the stage in a frantic haze. However, the danger here is veering into caricature, a line that Melville sometimes crosses.
On the opposite end of the spectrum. Cat Simmons provides a grounding presence in both her performance and her character, Jackie, Nina’s friend who works in infant care. She is the yin to Nina’s yang; however, sometimes they are on so far opposing spectrums that it seems like they’re not even in the same play. Perhaps this is director Abigail Graham’s intention: to illustrate the vast divide between the mother and the non-mother. Even so, some of the bumps could use some evening out.
The story deals with serious issues surrounding perinatal mental health, which propel the high-intensity drama. When Nina tells Jackie she can see how people shake their babies, she thinks she is confiding in a friend, in moment of relief on her first night off from the newborn haze. However, that statement and those raw emotions come back to destroy her.
Instead of being met with compassion and care, Nina becomes something of the pariah of the piece. Denise Black’s portrayal of grandmother and mother-in-law Pearl exacerbates this isolation for Nina. No one wants to listen to her or take her needs or emotions in the account. Perhaps a nod to the way society treats mothers, not acknowledging their needs or the very real physical and mental health issues they face.
Since we are in this completely one-sided perspective of the experience, trapped in the maelstrom of Nina’s mind, we don’t get to see it any other way. When inevitable tragedy occurs, we don’t get to know where or why it happened. Just as Nina is left searching for answers, so are we. We feel her pain and her urgency. Maybe we don’t need another side to the story. Maybe the mother’s is the only one that matters.