Review: Be My Baby, Leeds Playhouse

Be My Baby is the last production in the Playhouse’s year long Pop-Up season, and features the female members of the Ensemble Company, who have been joined by actor Anna Gray from Mind the Gap theatre company. Amanda Whittington’s play made its stage debut in 1997 and is one of the most performed plays in the English language, in part due to the fact that (as noted in the programme notes) with more than four female characters, the play lends itself well to amateur and school drama groups which are predominantly comprised of women.

In this new adaptation, director Jacqui Honess-Martin brings to light this important story of forced adoption, which at its height in the 1960s, led to 25,000 mothers being forced into giving away their children. The story follows 19-year-old Mary (played brilliantly by Simona Bitmate) who is sent to St Saviours institution, and forms a strong intimate bond with three friends.

This moving, innovative production is executed finely and skillfully by Honess-Martin. The grey and austere colour palette of the stage brilliantly casts the church-run St Saviour’s as a prison. The beds are grey cold slabs; a gruesome sense of imprisonment hangs in the air: the dehumanisation of these young, vulnerable women is laid grimly bare. And yet, other than the music and clothes which situates the story firmly in the 60s, the production has a contemporary and sleek staging, highlighting the timelessness of the story.

As Bitmate’s Mary attempts to challenge her predicament, the songs – classic chart hits from the 60s, all sung brilliantly by the cast – percolate through the narrative, offering and evoking a world of romance away from their grim plight. The Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’ and Dusty Springfield’s ‘I Only Want to Be With You’ take on a new poignant meaning as all four women yearn for world beyond the confines of the St Saviours; they speak movingly of the boyfriends, lives and dreams they’ve left behind.

The six actors work brilliantly together in what is truly an ensemble piece. Tessa Parr adds light, comic relief with her naïve, girlish charm. The central friendship between Queenie (played by Crystal Condie) and Mary is heart-warming to watch: the latter is a young woman whose optimism and naivety curdles into rage whilst Queenie’s defeated attitude brings home the destructive nature of the system at hand. The anguish and distress from Gray’s Norma, after she learns her baby has been taken away, is a standout moment in the production as the psychologically incomprehensible and devastating implications of what we are witnessing hit home. Even the matron (Susan Twist) and Mrs Adams (Jo Mousley), who could have been crudely depicted as one-dimensional villains, are multi-faceted. Twist’s Matron is curt and cruel, but the explication of her backstory makes her a sympathetic figure, despite the cruel conditions she sanctions for women under her care. The integrated captioning is neatly assimilated into the background but is also a medium with which the cast openly interact, such as when the four women simultaneously turn their heads sharply to the screen in a humorous double take.

As the fight for women to have control over their bodies rages on all over the world, in this production the harsh reality of this real phenomenon is punctuated with vital moments of defiance and rage on the part of Mary and her friends. Written in the 90s, and bringing to the fore a great injustice that happened not too long ago, this production is a powerful story for our present moment, and an urgent call to action.

Be My Baby is playing Leeds Playhouse until 1 June. For more information and tickets see the Leeds Playhouse website.