This production, on the afternoon of 15th October, was part of the University of Birmingham’s, “Book to the future” festival. Its milieu, the swathe of middle aged, and pensionable aged, folk, increasingly responsible for raising children cross-generationally.
Ostensibly, that might be regarded as dry, its appeal niche, and those present overwhelmingly reflected those most likely to be left “Holding Baby”. But Director, and author, Jan Watts’ piece, has loftier ambitions, and those ambitions are emphatically realised.
It is estimated that some 300,000 children are being raised by grandparents, close family members, or friends, a tenth of whom are in the West Midlands. If you then allow for the immediate families of those “kinship parents”, who might typically number around ten, the target audience of those directly affected grows to some three million. Niche? Maybe. Significant and under-represented? Certainly.
Watts is smarter than to restrict herself to a single issue polemic. Instead she weaves a tale incorporating, dementia, immigration, serious illness, the NHS, social services, drug addiction, painful choices – and how annoying doctor’s receptionists can be.
Yes, the focus is serious, but the treatment is deft, pacey, and tinged with laugh out loud moments.
The two acts are presented on a single stage set at the Mandela Surgery, Balaclava Rd, in Birmingham, an address fellow playwright John Sullivan would have approved of. In the first Act, Barbara (Diane Ellis) is there for her flu jab , Gracie (Jenny Stokes) , her mother, is there because carer DG (Toni Midlane) is awaiting a diagnosis and has had to bring her along, Dr Abdullah (Elaine Ward) is present because it is her surgery, receptionist Maeve (Laura Judges) is there to confront the rabble who have the effrontery to want to see a doctor, and Tia Maria , a new born baby ( a roll of carpet), is there because she has been abandoned by her junkie mother Eva ( Ashleigh Aston).
The set is minimalistic, one table, enough chairs, two spotlights and sound effects, with all other props improvised. This places a disproportionate burden on the actors. Fortunately, they rise to the occasion magnificently. Each one has minimal formal costume, but do sport a tee shirt with their first name emblazoned on it. Superficially this is initially useful to ascertain who is who, but as the play progresses, a more subtle message of identity emerges.
What delights throughout is the dialogue. Easy on the ear, sharp in observation, and softened by gentle humour.
Diane Ellis plays a bewildered, confused, and overwhelmed grandmother, admirably, as her trip to a doctors surgery for a flu jab unravels into a choice between taking in her granddaughter, or condemning her to care. Notwithstanding the life changing consequences of her decision, the minutiae of life is not overlooked. As any grandparent undertaking emergency babysitting duties will testify, the question of what formula a new born baby takes is not easily answered. Those same grandparents will also instantly recognise the references to the ubiquitous Silver Cross pram.
Dramatic serendipity demands that her mother in turn also turns up. The vastly experienced Jenny Stokes delivers a masterclass in characterisation, in turns lucid, confused, warm and detached, a tender exploration of dementia. Her carer DG is no less warm and caring, working for the “Comfort at Sunset” care home. Prepared to “deal with shit”, Toni Midlane’s Latin timbre is mellifluous, her acting energetic, and nuanced, hiding her own health and family secrets, working in a job below her capability, to finance her own children far away. It is a powerful, and poignant exposition of the motivation of immigrants working in this country.
Doctor’s receptionists are a safe target for public opprobrium. Initially, Maura Judges is happy to portray Maeve as a pantomime villain with some great lines; “ Don’t take any notice of the shouty woman- she’s just the baby’s grandmother”. Yet as the plot unfolds, it transpires that she too has home care arrangements to keep, and plays a key role in defusing an incendiary situation utilising the same skills which originally seemed so irksome.
Even Elaine Ward’s Dr Abdullah, a vision of calm amidst the emotional mayhem, has her own family time to protect, but author Watts doesn’t fawn unreservedly at the altar of hard-pressed GP’s. Whilst happy to make an easy gag at the expense of social workers : “You know they’re social workers because of their silly earrings”, she also shines a light on Surgery hierarchy as the doctor bales out some patients by ordering taxis on the surgery account ,leaving the equally deserving receptionist to catch the bus home.
In Act two, the versatile Toni Midlane reappears as DG’s daughter, this time sporting a less soothing, but character differentiating American accent, playing a pivotal and heart wrenching part in an unexpected, and powerful, plot twist. However, for me, the defining performance comes from Ashleigh Aston as junkie mother Eva. She blasts in , supercharged, into the deceptively languid first scene of the second Act. Frenetic, irrational, and disruptive, she careers, through the second half, spitting venom and lies everywhere, in thrall to her all -consuming drug addiction.
There is not a weak link in the cast in this vibrant, poignant, drama. Although the characters are all female, there is not a feminist diatribe to be heard, indeed there is barely a reference made to men at all. What makes this play so satisfying is Watts’ versatile writing. Eva’s visceral, venal despair, labelling her mother Barbara as “the baby snatcher”, combines vulnerability with casual spite. By contrast Barbara, confronted by a situation which she neither welcomes nor particularly enjoys , approaches her own lot with a quiet stoicism and whimsical reflections – why do people abuse parent and child parking spaces? “If parking is that important to you why don’t you get yourself a child.”
A fundamental response to any drama should be “why?” In this instance the answer is a fine piece of writing on a largely untouched subject, with contemporary relevance, which illuminates, entertains and engages in equal measure. This performance in the round added to the intimacy and emotional intensity of the occasion. Although the events of this drama are extraordinary, whilst mingling with members of the audience, I heard stories even more extraordinary, all welcoming the chance to see something which spoke to them.
The following link may help those who are, or who are affected by, kinship caring.