The title of Mum – a fertile-with-ideas play by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, writer of the excellent Shakespeare spin-off Emilia (2018) – is singular but refers to three mothers: Nina, whose baby Ben is three months old; Nina’s own mum; and Pearl, Nina’s mother-in-law by virtue (or is it?) of husband David, a pivotal but unseen figure in a play that feminises Philip Larkin’s line: “Man hands on misery to man.”
Starting from the first night sleep-starved Nina allows Ben to stay away with David and his mum, the play severely questions the concept of “natural mother”, suggesting a well-meaning conspiracy of initiated parents and natal professionals to suppress the fact that exhaustion, panic and inadequacy are very common responses. Nina’s nightmare – the right word for some scenes – is that people have told her, or she has heard, what she wants to hear.
Perhaps due to a time of extremes, recent new plays (Alesha Harris’s Is God Is, Suzan-Lori Parks’s White Noise) often seem to channel Greek tragedy, and somewhere in Mum is the idea of Medea, Euripides’s rebuke to slushiness about mother love.
Lloyd Malcolm daringly switches tone, from comic to manic, and jumbles time, so that, in Abigail Graham’s unnerving staging, we would be wary of swearing to events in court.
The dialogue alternates torrential monologue and tight exchanges, in which the simple statement “I couldn’t do it” is spoken twice with starkly different inferences, and a character speaking only in cliches is revealed to be attentive, rather than lazy, playwriting.
One regret is that the writer does not explore more, as she has in publicity material, the economic element of childcare; Nina’s domestic situation has to be unpicked from the shifty script.
Sophie Melville is alternately hilarious and scary as a woman drowning in responsibility; Denise Black subtly plays many faces of motherhood; and Cat Simmons deftly differentiates a chorus of women with personal or professional interest in the life of baby Ben. Though only 60 minutes, the play is, dramatically and sociologically, a power hour.
Mum is at Soho theatre until 20 November