The play Be My Baby was first performed in 1997, is set in the 1960s, and yet here it is being staged twenty two years after it debuted and still being relevant in the present, where arguments over women’s bodies are playing out in the here and now.
The set was very minimal but portrayed the stark hard edges of this institution where young girls are sent to give birth and are then expected to give that baby away to strangers. Each of the girls have their own set of circumstances that have led them to this place, some of these stories are fictions they have wrapped around themselves to protect themselves from the harsh reality of how they have ended up here.
As serious as the subject matter is, the play is broken up with musical interludes and comic episodes. Much of the comedy comes from the lack of understanding of what has happened to themselves and the physical reality of what is to come. It’s sobering to realise that less than 60 years ago there was so little sharing of the facts of life and that this lack of clarity partly explains how the girls came to be pregnant.
Certainly not comedic is the realisation that they are expected to give away their babies and with them their rights to the child, forever. At this time, the name of the child on the birth certificate is changed to that of the adoptive parents, meaning that their ties are severed irrevocably – the child and mother have no chance of future reconciliation.
Susan Twist plays the Matron perfectly, all buttoned up and strict about protocol – she shows no emotion about the plight of the girls in her care. Towards the end of the play we see a glimpse of heartbreak from her past and finally get to see a softer side of this dominating and severe woman. The Matron helps the girls, and the audience, see that there is no choice for these girls, society will not accept them as unmarried mothers. It is brought home that although two people were involved in the sexual act, the women are alone expected to take on the “shame” and will go through this experience by themselves with no family support in a cold institution. The friendships they form with each other are the only kind of comfort and love they receive in that sad place.
All of the actors were fantastic; their singing was beautiful and often a welcome relief from the subject matter in hand. Crystal Condie as Queenie has a wonderful voice – in fact the only part of the play that hit a wrong note was when Mary told Queenie she may not have what it takes to be a successful singer like her idol, Dusty Springfield. Crystal’s beautiful singing voice made this hard to countenance – she could definitely go far with a voice like that!
The birth of Mary’s baby was particularly well staged, the balled up sheet transformed into a newborn baby and then savagely let loose and returned to a sheet, taking the action back to the working life of the laundry, the baby forgotten.
There was a really powerful moment at the end of the play that involves a teddy bear, I won’t spoil it for you but the whole audience gave a spontaneous and genuine gasp of sadness – see if you can spot it.
Although all of the actors were brilliant, I’d like to give a special mention to Anna Gray who plays Norma. She began acting with Mind the Gap, one of Europe’s leading learning disability theatre companies based in Bradford. She played a fantastic part and I think it’s wonderful to see differently-abled people on the stage.
Be My Baby runs at the Leeds Playhouse until 1st June – do catch it if you can.
Tickets: £13.50-£31 from (0113) 213 7700 or leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/be-my-baby; Age guidance: 12+
This post was written by Hazel Millichamp
Photo: Simona Bitmate (Mary) and Crystal Condie (Queenie) in Be My Baby. Photography by Anthony Robling
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