Coming in at less than an hour, there is really not very much to say about Mother Must Die. With such a short run time, performers and writers Libby Rodliffe and Olivia Thompson try to do too much: they bring in tropes of absurdism, Gothic horror, psychological thriller and family drama, all of which muddle together and fail to present a storyline that can be endeared to.
Set in the 1000-room Gothic mansion of Pen Hera Heights, Mother Must Die has sisters Jocasta and Jupiter on their annual pilgrimage to that house to wish their mother Happy Birthday. They have a series of birthday rituals that they must perform – prepare the offal souffle or sing the birthday song – but really, they are here to murder her. Twist after twist follows, with Rodcliffe and Thompson repeatedly trying and failing to achieve their objective.
Pen Hera Heights is just slightly too big a stretch to imagine in the pokey pub theatre of the Red Lion. Though theatre never has to be limited by its performance space, the writing here is so generically evocative that various settings like the music room or the 1000ft cliffs around the house are never given sufficient space or description to be successfully evoked. This failure of setting means that the narrative feels abrupt and confused, and the audience is left disconnected.
And the failure of setting is unfortunately not all that is wrong with Mother Must Die?!. The script is too flippant to maintain the suspense needed to carry the darkness that the writers obviously aspire towards. Deviations into absurdism are completely cringeworthy, with instances of snarky sisterly grammar corrections or references to being as intelligent as a “squashed hedgehog.” Is the placement of the mother’s birthday on Halloween meant to be funny through its coincidence? Or through the irony generated by the narrative obviousness of that coincidence? Whatever the case, it falls flat.
Both performers clearly have talent, though there is a sense with all the slapstick humour and breakouts into song and dance that at times they use the play as an opportunity to show off their performance chops. There is something to say, too, about the bizarreness of the environment they create, with strange props of mysterious letters, a headless doll, or a blasted canvas in the corner all signifying an environment of abortive maternal creation. For this is the overarching vision: an allegorical reflection on what it is to be a daughter. Mothers make you in their own image until you reach a point where you should reject them, as per the Electra myth. But Mother Must Die reflects on how that escape might be impossible – how maternal influence might be eternal.
The literature student in me willed the play to meet this vision, but the failure of the writing meant it never did. The writers should have appreciated the space needed to evoke setting through writing and should not have turned to the easiest gag possible when trying to tick the box of ‘dark humour’. I would not quite write off Fantastic Garlands, as Rodliffe and Thompson clearly have talent, as well as imagination. But I would write off Mother Must Die?!.
Mother Must Die?! played the Old Red Lion Theatre until 8 February. For more information, visit the Old Red Lion Theatre website.