Soho Theatre + Writers' Centre, London W1
Opened 22 May, 2000

The latest offerings in Soho Theatre Company's inaugural season in its new Dean Street premises are two revivals from the Five Plays: Four Weeks season during the company's "exile" at Pleasance London some 18 months ago. Each argues in its own way for the importance of feeling humanity, each is given a sparse but excellent production, and each just fails to make that extra shift of gear from the very good indeed to the truly special.

Amanda Whittington's Be My Baby recounts a mid-1960s North of England counterpart to the story of Ireland's Magdalen Laundries. Here, young unmarried mothers are bundled off into a Church-run home where they work for their keep until delivering their little bundles of adoption fodder; new inmate Mary (Katie Blake) finds the usual mixed bag of comrades and a matron who, though firm, is more sympathetic than the spinster-tyrant of cliché, and fights a losing battle to retain her teenage illusions about marrying her beloved and keeping the child.

Jonathan Fensom's design utilises a hospital curtain to signal changes of location between the matron's office, the laundry and the room which Mary shares with Queenie, the hard-bitten top dog who nevertheless clings to the illusion of making it as a pop singer. On Mary's Dansette, the pair play and join in with numbers ranging from The Shangri-Las' bizarre spoken-word "Past, Present And Future" to The Ronettes' song which gives the play its title (slightly marred by the fact that they repeatedly get the words to the chorus wrong). Lucy Speed, better known as Natalie of EastEnders, shows a fine talent for sardonicism as Queenie, and Abigail Morris directs with a keen eye for the simplicity and sensitivity of Whittington's 80-minute piece.

Fensom's set for Angels And Saints by Jessica Townsend is even more pared-down, consisting simply of a bathroom suite and a scattering of (perhaps symbolic) autumn leaves. The bathroom is 46-year-old Noreen's only hope (and a largely vain one) for a moment's peace from her chattering invalid grandmother; the leaves indicate the graveyard in which, one afternoon, she meets bibulous Scotsman Fulton, an encounter which changes both her future path and, to Fulton's astonishment, his. In the most literal sense, Noreen - played with beautiful delicacy by Gabrielle Reidy - gets a life; however, it is to be a life of her own shaping, of quietude and moral contemplation, rather than the worldly dissoluteness offered with increasing desperation by Sean Hay's Fulton. Reidy and director Polly Teale neither exaggerate the initial devotion of Noreen's Catholicism nor attempt to dispel it as the belief which informs her decisions in the closing minutes of the play's hour and a half. Avril Elgar embodies both the infuriating prattle and the heart-rending neediness of Noreen's grandmother.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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