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Theatre Review: The stars of ‘night, Mother bring a death-wish tale to life

Roxana Silbert adapts Marsha Norman's Pulitzer prize-winner novel for the stage to portray a sensitive issue superbly.

Rebecca Night and Stockard Channing in ‘night Mother at the Hampstead Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

night, Mother
Hampstead Theatre, London,
until Dec 4

Suicide is always meant to come as a shock on stage. The guns, for instance, that Konstantin and Joe turn upon themselves in Chekhov’s The Seagull and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. Sometimes the act is talked about, but it doesn’t happen. What else was Hamlet thinking about when he uttered the words: “To be, or not to be?”

The unusual thing about Jessie, the tormented protagonist in Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer-winner ‘night, Mother, is that she takes the trouble to explain to Thelma, her mum, why she’s decided to end it all. In addition to informing her what arrangements she wants put in place after her death, she even goes on to advise her precisely what she should do after she hears the fatal shot being fired.

“If you’ve got the guts to kill yourself, you’ve got the guts to remain alive,” Thelma wails at Jessie. Her daughter replies: “It’s just where I’d rather be.”

Roxana Silbert’s production is obviously not what can be called a great night out for all the family. It is, for all that, an exceptionally well-written and intelligently crafted drama that Silbert directs with enormous skill. It also offers performances of mesmerising intensity from Stockard Channing and Rebecca Night as, respectively, mother and daughter.

Channing – Rizzo in Grease, president Bartlet’s wife in The West Wing – communicates very well fragility, if not also impending doom. It’s often an ordeal acting opposite a Hollywood star, but Rebecca Night holds her own well. Her style is a lot less emphatic than Channing’s: her character is horrifying precisely because she sets about planning her final act with such a cool and calm detachment.

For all that, I still take Dorothy Parker’s line on this matter: “Razors pain you, rivers are damp, acids stain you and drugs cause cramp. Guns aren’t lawful, nooses give, gas smells awful. You might as well live.”

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