Most people know Alan Bennett’s The Lady In The Van was based on a real person who lived near his former address. Similarly, a woman that playwright Michelle Inniss met provided the inspiration for She Called Me Mother. Imagining how this woman ended up being on the streets provides the backstory for Evangeline (Cathy Tyson) and her daughter Shirley (Chereen Buckley).
A perennial figure at London Bridge Station, Evangeline talks to the audience about her life. Spending her formative years in Trinidad, Evangeline was happy and care-free. Against the wishes of her mother, she dated Rodney, the man who would later become her husband and like many people from the Caribbean at that time, made the exodus to the “mother country” to start a new life. Rodney, however was deeply unhappy and pined for home, but didn’t feel he could return while he hadn’t made a success of himself. Instead he physically took his frustration out on Evangeline.
During the bitter, cold days, one thought keeps Evangeline going, a young woman – her “black swan” – who calls her “mother” when they meet and who she imagines might be mirror image of her own daughter who she hasn’t seen for years. Hearing Evangeline talk about her relationship with her daughter, one would imagine that Shirley was purely a wilful child who was deliberately at odds with her mother. However, the second half of the play reveals a very different story…
Tyson totally inhabits the role of Evangeline, looking back at her life with selective clarity, as well as with excitement at the surrogate daughter/“black swan” who has awoken her heart from its slumber.
The play at the end the first hour could have ended there, but it is in the latter half when Shirley takes a prominent role and all the unresolved questions find answers. As a Catholic and a woman of a different generation, marriage for Evangeline was expected to last for life, regardless of a spouse’s heinous actions – deeds that one could say were unforgivable and worthy of perdition… However, if “the road to hell is full of good intentions”, then Evangeline subconsciously thinks there is a special place in ‘hell’ for herself – a mother who didn’t believe or protect her daughter when she needed it. It’s not more prayers that Shirley needed when growing up, but a mother who would take decisive action. However, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as Shirley’s partner has exhibited the same violent proclivities as her father. Will she have the strength to walk away..?
Under Cara Nolan’s direction, She Called Me Mother at times offers hope without being mawkish, yet isn’t afraid to delve into the darker side of things and the issues that can taint mother-daughter relationships for years. In this sense She Called Me Mother transcends its characters of Trinidadian-descent and tells a universal story about the plight of women. Period.
© Michael Davis 2017
She Called Me Mother runs at the Tara Arts Theatre, London until Sat 11th February, 3pm/7.30pm.