This One Night – Woman in Mind

Talented, garret-dwelling poet and fiction writer Leo Cookman gives us our next guest blog for our This One Night project. 

So this one night my Dad takes me and my sister to the theatre to see Mum in a play. It is 1993 and I am 9 years old. I have been taken to the Lindley Playhouse numerous times to see my parents involved in it in various ways, either on stage or off. Its a very busy place and full of loud people with a peculiar type of grin on their faces. The Playhouse is a converted church and has been designed like an old Victorian one in deep red and plush velour. Except the bar which resembles a working men’s club from the 70s with formica tables and sterile lighting. The bell rings in the bar so we go upstairs into, what seemed at the time, the grand operatic auditorium and take our seats amongst the hubbub of the audience.

The Playhouse Theatre Whitstable

The Playhouse Theatre Whitstable

Mum had been nervous. She’d been out to rehearsals most nights and looked very stressed. Apparently it was an important play “in the calendar” and Mum had a big role in it. I now know Mum gets nervous about any performance but this was an early realisation of her nerves.

The lights go down, the chatter fades out, the curtains open and lights come up on stage on a garden setting. I know most of these people on stage, they’ve been for dinner, or I’ve seen them at the pub or seen them at family parties. And there’s Mum. And its all happy and she’s in a pretty garden and everyone is being nice. Only its not nice. Mum’s not well. I watch my Mum go mad in front of me. She collapses a few times and I want to run on stage and cuddle her. I look at Dad and he is frowning, I know he’s thinking the same thing, he’s worried about Mum. She’s gone mad. Everyone else is just watching but I know my Mum and that isn’t my Mum that’s someone else and she’s gone mad and she’s gibbering and I don’t like it and I want her to be alright. She’s says “December Be” which I mishear as “Remember Me” which turns out is correct. The lights go dark, everyone claps.

I go into the bar accompanied by Dad and Phillipa in shocked silence. I want to find Mum and want to give her a hug and make her be okay. Only it seems she’s fine as she glides from the dressing room, all smiles amidst gales of laughter and many congratulations. She is normal Mum as she gives us all a hug and a kiss.

But she’d gone mad. I’d watched her go mad. I’d watched her little dream world shrink and crumble. I knew it was on stage, I knew it wasn’t real but I knew my Mum better and knew what she was like and my Mum had gone mad.

It took a little while to get over seeing my Mum in Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘Woman in Mind’, a play not even out of short trousers at the time yet audaciously performed by the amateur dramatics society, the Lindley Players. It was nominated for best play in the Kent festival and won numerous other awards. The more I (and everyone) saw of Mum the more everyone realised the world had overlooked a truly great actress. I don’t say this lightly or with great hyperbole, she performed Shirley Valentine solo several times, it also winning awards, she’s played housewives, teachers, nuns, fairies, sozzled old dears, mutes, battleaxes, northern mothers, witches, heroines and all without a fault. Almost unanimously praised for every role, Ma is a great actress. And you’ve never heard of her. Mum wanted to be an author, a career she only realised in recent years. She says her nerves proved the better of her for pursuing a career in acting. Dad once said to me Mum should have gone into it pro as she’d have been snapped up immediately. I now realise how right he was. And why he was frowning that night. He was always nervous for other people on stage and it always upset him watching other people be upset, even if he knew it was fake.

Janie Dee and Dominic Hecht in Woman in Mind at Vaudeville Theatre, London, in 2009

Janie Dee and Dominic Hecht in Woman in Mind at Vaudeville Theatre, London, in 2009

That one night I realised how powerful an effect a good performance can be. Something you learn as a portrait photographer is people always look at the eyes in a photo first. I look back and I see Mum’s eyes looking skittishly across the stage and looking vacant and scared. Conveying that from the stage is a hard thing to do. Mum did. She’s a born actress and that one night I realised that and many other things.

That one night I realised theatre has a far grander context than a mere occasional middle class treat. That one night I realised Amateur Dramatics does not mean poor quality. That one night I realised a good story is everything. That one night I realised that great truths are hidden in falsity. That one night I realised how flawed and deeply human my parents were. That one night made me want to trick people like my Mum had done. That one night I thought I’d lost my Mum but got her back just the way she was. And if you ask her nicely she still does it for laughs now and then today.

This is Leo. Hello Leo.

This is Leo. Hello Leo.

Post Script: If you’re in Kent, head to the Whitstable Playhouse and see whatever the Lindley’s production is at the time. They are amateur in name only and the theatre itself is beautiful. A great night out always guaranteed and proof that “The Grand Tradition” of Theatre is not an irrelevance.

Past and present First Draft performers will be contributing to This One Night by blogging about a live performance that has been significant to them in the weeks leading up to our August event: One Night Only!

Anything else?

Find out more about This One Night and read the other blogs so far here

Join in and tweet us about the most significant live performance you’ve seen, using #ThisOneNight

Follow Leo and First Draft on Twitter

We’ve got a few extra special events coming up later this month. Watch this space for less tantalising, more informative announcements in the next few days…

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