An intimate and humorous two-hander, Mrs Lowry & Son, currently playing at Trafalgar Studios, delves into the unhappy and controlling relationship between lauded painter, L.S Lowry (charmingly portrayed by Michael Begley) and his bed-ridden mother, Elizabeth (June Watson). In Tackroom Theatre’s debut, Richard Kent’s close and claustrophobic set perfectly complements the utter dominance Elizabeth exerts over her quiet, introverted son, drawing us into a stagnant and discontented world where as we begin to feel just as trapped as he is.
The play follows Lowry in the beginnings of his career as he yearns to transition from solitary, night-time painting sessions in the attic to having his work appreciated in London and beyond. As the play progresses, we come to learn that it is his disdainful mother, not his want of talent, that is the ultimate obstacle to success. At the same time, the play explores how Elizabeth is the very reason Lowry paints at all, as he desperately seeks to create something, anything, which will make her happy, creating a clever layer of tragic irony.
It is always fascinating to see the lives of famous artists and figures on the stage, to glimpse a little of their genius and what caused or created it. Indeed, the play highlights just how often brilliance is borne of deep sorrow, loneliness, oppression and the desperation to please those whose opinion we care for the most. However, while the play paints an intriguing portrait of Lowry and his devotion to his eternally dissatisfied mother, it does often lean towards exposition rather than drama, and the hour and a half does, at times, feel long.
Moreover, while Begley offers a wonderfully understated and likeable performance as Lowry , this is offset by the relentless and hard to swallow nagging of Elizabeth. Though this might be what the play endeavours to illustrate, this age-old stereotype eventually makes for wearing viewing. While Watson valiantly battles to bring light and shade to the part, its core two-dimensionality renders it a feat beyond even her far-reaching abilities. This results in the play missing the opportunity to really explore the complexities and subtleties of parenthood, and a mother’s deep-seated hopes and fears for her son’s future. Instead, the play is more black and white: the character of Elizabeth simply drawn as mean spirited, too class conscious and selfish, leaving Lowry to overcome his shackles to achieve his dreams – a paradigm which has often been done before, and, I might add, with more success.
There are rare and fleeting moments of tenderness, such when Lowry combs his mother’s hair, though again, disappointingly, this is accompanied by shrill, explanatory dialogue and conflict which lacks dramatic charge and subtext. Nonetheless, David Plater’s lighting design does much to compensate for the script’s thin drawing of its characters, with a single window bringing beautiful warm hues into the otherwise cold and unwelcoming world of the play. Furthermore, moments of humour do help to hold the audience’s attention, such as when Watson displays her great comic timing as Elizabeth indulging in her evening drink, or, as she calls it, “Nectar”.
While the production pays homage to Lowry in its well-executed aesthetics, and while the undoubtedly talented cast grapple with a somewhat turgid script, Mrs Lowry & Son falls just short of really making the impact it desires. While I noticed that the older demographic which filled the studio around me enjoyed the occasional chuckle, I was left wondering what the point of the play really was, other than to offer me a slight biography of an artist who I had theretofore not been particularly familiar with. And this leads me to my biggest quibble: I went to the theatre to see a play, not an illustration.
Mrs Lowry & Son is playing at the Trafalgar Studios until 23 November. For more information and tickets, see the ATG Tickets website.