A woman, Brenda, is in a grey house. Outside there is a group of reporters, furiously snapping photos at any sign of activity. We wonder what she’s done: some financial irregularity, perhaps? We’re in America in the 90s.
She has a small son, Jason, who doesn’t want to go to school, and another, Matthew, who we don’t meet for a while. We know something’s wrong within those grey walls with the flashbulbs outside, and we’re intrigued.
As Mother of Him unfolds, we discover that Matthew is the one causing catastrophe within the family, perpetrator of a criminal act which has fractured and split apart any veneer of normality.
He’s an affable teenager, wearing a much-loved hooded sweater, given to moments of petulance. A role model for his younger brother, yet the newspaper headlines and radio bulletins we hear paint him as a monster.
Although the lead character on paper is the mother (Tracy-Ann Oberman), the emotional pull is with her boys. Jason grows from innocence and incomprehension to a sense of frustration. His formative influence becomes the returning father, not the older brother. Matthew is all cocky bravado until reality hits, when we see the child within.
Both parents see their older son as lost to them. A scene where Brenda snatches the hoodie from Jason as if it is contaminated (only to then bury her face in it as if to savour the smell of her elder child) is powerfully done, as is the final scene with Hanukkah candles.
This is a moral minefield with, as Lee Newby’s design suggests, shades of grey. Matthew’s crime disturbs both audience and characters, throwing into sharp relief our perception of what makes a “monster”.
The mother’s vacillating emotional state – at one point engaging the media in what they want as bait, at another recounting a store meeting with the mother of one of the victims, sisters in grief – is well-portrayed, but left me a bit empty.
Hari Aggarwal and Scott Folan are superb as the boys. Neil Sheffield has a couple of strong scenes as the father who blames the media circus on his absence as Matthew grew up.
Anjelica Serra’s dual role as angry girlfriend and sympathetic cleaner with Simon Hepworth as the lawyer friend give voice to those outside the tight family nucleus.
Evan Placey’s play is at its best when it concentrates on Brenda and her sons; when trying to anchor this family drama to real events (the President and the intern) it seems a distraction. I also felt uncomfortable at the use of one particular snatch of a song during a scene change, given the subject matter.
Mother of Him continues at the Park Theatre, and is directed by Max Lindsay. Photo credits – Bronwen Sharpe.