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BWW Review: 'NIGHT, MOTHER, Hampstead Theatre


Stockard Channing and Rebecca Night take the Hampstead Theatre stage in the disappointing revival of Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

BWW Review: 'NIGHT, MOTHER, Hampstead Theatre

BWW Review: 'NIGHT, MOTHER, Hampstead Theatre

Hampstead Theatre is back its feet properly, reopening at full capacity with Stockard Channing back on stage, last seen in London at Trafalgar Studios in 2017. The former Rizzo now plays Thelma, Rebecca Night's Jessie's elderly mother who lives by herself, apparently ignorant of the running of her own home. But Jessie's had enough of life and announces to her that at the end of the night she's going to shoot herself in her bedroom.

She makes sure Thelma knows that she's only telling her this because she respects her and wants her to be prepared, preferring not to leave a note to do so. Channing's character is surprised and for a little over an hour tries to give her flimsy reasons not to take her own life, ultimately failing.

That's the show. There's no real, meaty drama nor any surge of feeling you might expect from the subject matter. 'night, Mother is a rather pointless revival that showcases stiff acting, a propensity for repetition, and is interesting only intermittently.

What the writer does well, though, is build some watertight depressive logic. Jessie is resigned and can't wait for the moment she doesn't exist anymore. She dodges her mother's attempts at reasoning with swift quips and gives her tips on how to survive without her.

She maps out everything, from the moments after she'll hear the gunshot to what to do when she'll need to order her groceries to be delivered. Who to call, how to react, everything she can think of is taken care of so that her mother can live serenely. She's a calm and thoughtful suicide.

The text won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and had its London debut at Hampstead a few years later, making this 2021 production a comeback of sorts. It's sadly hard to understand why Marsha Norman's play is so decorated in Roxana Silbert's take.

Designer Ti Green gives us a delightful 80s living space where warm tones mingle with teal detailing, anchoring the performance to a period where epilepsy was regarded as a bogeyman - but we don't really know this from the text. This is a crucial piece of information to fully grasp Jessie's trauma, but it's buried under long silences and across-the-room stares.

The backdrop is extremely veiled and the hints at Jessie's struggle never take root, so her suicidal tendencies come off like a tantrum. In reality, the character was doomed from the start, as in many American tragedies. Born in a loveless marriage between a farmer who was also probably epileptic and a distant mother who was deeply ashamed of her seizures, she's now a divorcée with a son who swings between being a drug addict and a thief.

During the lengthy conversation (that happens in real time), they tackle many aspects of their private misfortunes, and Thelma's lies about her child's condition turn out to be only the tip of the iceberg. A lot gets mentioned, but Jessie's exit from the room and subsequent gunshot prevent the audience from getting anything but the quick snapshot of a dysfunctional family.

Night's delivery is one of quiet resignation and Jessie comes off as a perfectly depressed apathetic woman. Channing's reactions seem delayed and inexpressive, but as she grows confident in her role across the 80 minutes, she becomes the only bright spot of interest.

As the programme points out, until the 1970s people with seizures could still be turned away from restaurants and businesses, so on one hand we might say that it's a good thing we can't relate to 'night, Mother anymore. The play is very close to being able to be considered a period piece at this point, but it might need some further directorial touches to be contextualised properly so that its core subject can land correctly.

As it is, the production is boring and without much appeal to it.

'night, Mother runs at Hampstead Theatre until 4 December.

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