Review: ‘Night Mother, Hampstead Theatre ★★☆☆☆

A living area, connected to a kitchen

A table and chairs. A seat in front of a television set. A mother and her adult daughter, living together. A conversation about biscuits. You would be forgiven for thinking that you had walked into the production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane currently running at the Lyric Hammersmith. Instead, this is ‘Night Mother at the Hampstead Theatre. Unfortunately, ‘Night Mother, directed here by Roxana Silbert, is a much inferior production.

The play opens with Jessie (Rebecca Night) informing her mother, Thelma (Stockard Channing), that she is going to kill herself with her father’s gun at the end of the evening. The remainder of the play’s 80 minute running time entails a back and forth between the pair – Thelma trying to dissuade her daughter, Jessie remaining resolute. There is no give between them. It means that there is never the feeling of anything ever being truly at stake. The result is a lack of a dramatic tension and a play that drags itself to a conclusion and the answer only question the play really asks – will Jessie go through with her plan.
Stockard Channing and Rebecca Night. Photo: Marc Brenner

The themes the play explores, death, chronic illness and rural isolation, are lost in the monotony of the dialogue. It is difficult to believe that Marsha Norman won the Pulitzer Prize for the play in 1983 and received a Tony Award nomination to boot, either demonstrating a dramatic change in theatrical tastes or a severe misjudgement by the awards panels. I’m inclined to think it must be a combination of both.

Channing and Night give reasonable performances, considering the source material, though they are never truly believeable as a mother and daughter. That may be the point given the supposed disconnect between the characters. Channing does her best to draw depth and emotion from the play but with Norman’s text containing little of either her impationened pleas to her daughter sound melodramatic and hollow. Night is restricted to a one-tone delivery and has little scope to do much else.
Stockard Channing and Rebecca Night. Photo: Marc Brenner

There are attempts at black comedy throughout but the play takes itself much too seriously for that, lacking the knowingness of a Martin McDonagh comedy – the jokes arrive to silence, for the most part. When they do work it is through the considerable effort and pinpoint delivery of Channing that they do.

There are the occasional interesting exchanges – particularly on the right to choose when and how you die – but nothing of such value that it justifies the revival, instead it feels like a missed opportunity to enjoy Stockard Channing’s talent.
‘Night Mother is at Hampstead theatre, London, until 4 December