Whatever Gets You Through the Night (Sue Benner Theatre, Metro Arts West End) was riveting from beginning to end. Written, directed and co-produced by playwright Nicky Peelgrane, and co-produced by actor Belinda Raisin, this production (February 24-26) was by turns funny, thought-provoking and joyful, and sometimes all these things at once.
The play starts with the three main characters – Kate (Crystal Arons), Fern (Belinda Raisin) and Kris (Kimberley Chapman) – all pregnant and going through the ups and downs of being bulky, sleepless and plagued by heartburn. The women use jokes and honesty to cope as best they can, and immediately it’s clear this will be an engrossing ride.
Things get even more lively with the birth of Kate’s child, enacted on stage with Arons playing the scene to perfection, balancing both realism and humour. When Kate’s partner, Toby, tries to advise her during the labour, and she fires back with, ‘Shut the fuck up Toby, next time you can fuck yourself!’ – a line and delivery that had the crowd in stitches (no puns intended).
The bulk of the action, however, takes place after the women have had their babies – in the aftermath. Life has changed forever and each woman is coping differently. They meet up for mother’s group, and soon dub themselves MBB – Mothers Behaving Badly. But while they laugh about being bad mothers, in fact the women are doing their level best to deal with crying babies, breastfeeding difficulties, uncertainty about their parenting skills, lack of sleep, and, in one case in particular, very little support from their partner. The women’s partners are played by the same actor, Matthew Filkins, who brings a distinctive and vibrant persona to each role.
Kris tries to support the others, and seems on the surface to be managing okay, though she’s obviously exhausted. Kate cracks jokes through her pain, and can be a bit abrupt, but is a genuine friend. And Fern, the earth mother with her organic foods, is the most reserved initially, behaving as if all is going well with her baby, when in fact things are not as they seem.
Each child is represented by a faceless calico creature, which emphasises the universality in the experience of parenting (these babies need so much, so often). Having anonymous infants also focuses the storytelling firmly on the new parents.
The show cuts so close to the bone that at times it is mildly traumatic, bringing back those early, raw days of parenting from my perspective as a mother of two. But in the next moment there’s a hilarious visual or brilliantly funny line, and the tough emotions recede.
There are some striking and poignant sequences in which the women stand across the stage and simply lift then fold a baby wrap – the floating white fabric catching the eye as the repetition of their actions touches the heart. These movements capture the mind-numbing tasks that are so often part of parenthood, and evoke the isolation that this work often brings.
Music is used unobtrusively yet powerfully. Composer and musician Anne Stanley sits at the keyboard to one side of the stage, yet she ‘disappears’ once the actors take their place, the music swinging seamlessly from sombre to sunny and back again.
Lighting designer Ben Shotton ensures the mood of each scene is captured on set through darkness, light and colour. Stage designer Georgia Cohen creates a sense of almost claustrophobic domesticity, with a couch surrounded by scattered baby clothing, toys and baskets – items which increase in number and disarray as the mothers’ lives became more complicated. Huge balloons spelling out ‘BABY’ appear celebratory at the beginning of the performance, but as the play progresses, these too became oppressive in their size and constant presence.
Humour and pathos alternate throughout this production, and at times are entwined. The audience roars with laughter one minute, and is hushed just moments later when one of the women admits her deepest fear – that she’s failing as a mother.
Whatever Gets You Through the Night was incredibly entertaining, and kept the audience spellbound throughout. I look forward to the future success of this play as it finds new and exciting homes.