Three Generations of Women

Families eh? You can't live with them, you can't legally murder them for feeling that you have no more in common than a bloodline. It's a sad truism that for all the Government's (and Peggy Mitchell's) focus on the importance of "family" above all else, there is an equal amount of Jeremy Kyle-esque tabloid tales of family breakdowns, of blame and of lies that often result from little more than a lack of communication and a misunderstanding of the personal issues family members may have faced at their own particular time of life.

it's an unchallenging take that may move you if you are of the specific demographic

Broken Leg Theatre's new play, Three Generations of Women - inspired by an extensive research project where they spoke to women around the UK about the societal pressures they faced over different generations - explores how it's more common for us to blame the generations before us than try to empathise with the decisions they felt they had to make, or to put a mirror up to our own flaws and responsibilities for actions taken.

The story is held together in the present day when Frankie (Nicola Harrison - who fits her other role as her own mother as a teenager better than the very young looking and acting 37 year old Frankie) resigns from her assumedly great job in London due to her dissatisfaction with life (primarily and secretly) and her desire to move back to Yorkshire to live with and care for her cancer-stricken mother Gilly (Moir Leslie, shuffling around and wearing a turban in the manner we're used to seeing such illnesses being portrayed on stage). Their outwardly fractious relationship is seen as inwardly-loving and aspirational to Maya (Emily Spetch), Frankie's friend of over 20 years who has remained in Yorkshire with her two children, little money and absent (from the stage) partner.

Gilly's illness - and a coincidental discovery of old letters - leads Frankie to find her Gran, Elsie (a performance rather too heavy with repetitive downward inflexion and wringing of hands by Gilly Daniels), who she thought was dead, and to try to bring the family back together, find answers to secrets, bring the expected familial harmony we should aspire to and ultimately save her mother's life.

As the discoveries unfold, we flip back and forth in time to find out more about how Gilly came to be pregnant and her mother's reaction and dealings with the situation. They seem cruel. We also see Elsie - in monologue - explaining her ingrained beliefs on the right path to take in life (namely love, then marriage, then baby) to avoid being a social pariah. These various scenes and time shifts float nicely together with Harrison ably switching roles, some script crossover that makes us understand the similarities of the different characters' beliefs, and on a set that is clever in its simplicity, using little more than cardboard boxes for the multiple settings and to represent the idea of a family structure that is slowly broken down.

So what we get here is that women wanted better for their offspring than they feel they had for themselves - namely in terms of success, but success as defined differently to the next generation. Their hearts were in the right place but the motivations were never explained and so best intentions - as they often do - become just intentions. It's sad, but far from surprising. And that really sums up this show; slightly emotional but completely expected. It's easy to find things to relate to because it's a very top line look at issues that aren't hard to spot coming up. It's far from challenging but probably brings up situations that are relatable for not going to the extreme of unbelievable Jeremy Kyle. If you're a woman of a certain age - and more so if you're from Yorkshire where the humour and anachronisms are clearly based - then you may shed a small tear or raise a little giggle.

There's little more on offer here to anyone else but I don't think that matters too much. It surprises me that nothing more unique could be found by the extensive research (sure, there is a 'twist' at the end but you can see it coming a mile off which lessens its surprising nature), but perhaps if these were the most common elements produced, then it would be churlish to ignore them and produce a less populist show. Everything about it is just fine - even if further analysis does raise more questions such as how has Frankie never found her Gran before when she has always been on Facebook; how does Elsie then recognise her granddaughter 37 years later with only a glance; why did Gilly keep all her mother's letters and cards to her daughter in an Espirit box rather than just burn them when she had cut her out of her life?

And the nerves of the performers - which I am sure will settle as the tour progresses - were tantamount to the extent of causing us to be uncomfortable on this opening night. It took a long time for them to relax enough to seem like they were actually listening to each other rather than awaiting their cues, and the stumbles over lines were too consistent to be put down to anything other than first night nerves - peaking when the wrong characters' names were used, but as generally awkward when the bumbling made simple sentences make confused sense.

All in all, it's an unchallenging tale that may move you if you are of the specific demographic. I think this young company has the potential to do well but they need to try a bit harder, take more risks and have more confidence in their performances. They obviously have a talent for ideas but now need to stretch themselves more to bring us the theatre I think they probably could.

Reviews by Simon Smith

Dorfman Theatre

Home, I'm Darling

★★
Olivier Theatre

Exit the King

Royal Court Theatre

Pity

★★
National Theatre

The Lehman Trilogy

★★★★★
Lyttelton Theatre

Julie

★★★★
Olivier Theatre

Translations

★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

Elsie is born in a Yorkshire pit village in 1936 and will never know another way of life. Gilly is the first woman in her family to go to university, enjoying every ounce of freedom the 70s has to offer. Frankie learns everything she can about sex from Judy Blume; in 1989, who didn't?

This is a story of the horrors of moving back in with your mum in your 30s, of finally appreciating the best piece of advice your grandmother ever gave you and of extraordinary family secrets held across the generations.

After meeting women in London, Brighton and Leeds, and collecting hundreds of personal stories from all around the country in a new online archive, Broken Leg Theatre have distilled the contents of an astonishing research project into a new play. Following the script reading here last year, and a period of redevelopment, the company have now secured Arts Council England support to tour the production in 2016, in co-production with us at Greenwich Theatre.