We witness a struggle of identity as an unexpected arrival confronts the all-female cast with a question: ‘what becomes a woman?’
What Becomes? is a strikingly tender play. Embedded in the shifting musical zeitgeist of the 60s, Jane’s (Kate Mason) fragile family is paralleled with the complexity of Motown music’s development; liberty is consistently stifled by society’s imposing contempt. The play borrows its title from Jimmy Ruffin’s infamous Motown track (‘What Becomes of the Brokenhearted’) but an alternate question suffuses this production. Within Jane’s family, and without, we witness a struggle of identity as an unexpected arrival confronts the all-female cast with a question: ‘what becomes a woman?’
Thomas Ryalls’ script provides an intricate exploration of this theme. The opening scene presents us with a kiss that foregrounds the complex emotional exchanges that will occur between all women in the play, with any tenderness exhibited becoming unsettled by anxiety and even shame. Tracey’s (Elizabeth Cooke) propensity to watch the neighbourhood serves as a constant reminder of societal reproach and the director (Katie Wilkinson) should be commended for Jane’s physical mirroring of this motion. As she lies in bed repeating Tracey’s searching gaze we perceive the ironic yearning for a lover’s return inextricably linked with an awareness of the ever-critical world staring back.
The intimacy of our encounter with this struggling family was well supported by the set design. We are never fully removed from Jane’s bedroom, which is appropriately decorated with her desire for liberty – the vinyl records – and an imposing responsibility embodied by the cot. The simplicity of the set change not only ensured uninterrupted action but also expressed Jane’s timidity, as often after altercation she would retreat behind her bed and subsequently reel us into the next scene. Unfortunately, the sound effects were often a detracting presence, overwhelming the actors’ voices. This was simply a matter of volume, which could easily be solved, but when the climactic revelation of the baby’s name was lost under a cacophony of noise it was most disappointing. The costumes were appropriate but an expression of Jane’s inertia and confinement may have been enhanced if she had been the only character to fail to change her clothes.
Jessica’s portrayal of a conflicted mother was touching and often very powerful, particularly in her description of childbirth.
Although the delayed revelation of characters’ motivations could sometimes leave one feeling alienated- particularly in the case of the mother, Joyce (Jessica Alterman) – when later presented with scenes of poignant introspection, the wait typically proved worthwhile. Nevertheless, an incongruous development, in Joyce’s case, made it difficult to believe entirely in her character. How could a woman so inherently afraid of slander- to the extent that she initially abandons her daughter – be so immediately accepting of such a controversial relationship? This implausible discordance should be attributed to the writer’s desire to present a complete resolution, rather than Jessica Alterman’s performance. Jessica’s portrayal of a conflicted mother was touching and often very powerful, particularly in her description of childbirth. I hope in the subsequent shows she will have a little more confidence as this would elevate all her scenes to an equally moving level.
The performances were invariably good, and in some cases, excellent. Kate Mason’s presentation of a young girl thrown into the terrifying realm of motherhood was perfectly balanced. She retained an inextricable link between her childish behaviour and an overwhelming fear of harming her child and this ensured Jane appeared afraid, as opposed to apathetic. Elizabeth Cooke embodied the Motown spirit, moving around the stage with a dancelike fluidity and expressing her desire with such stirring nervous urgency that I found myself sharing in Jane’s impatience for her return. Alicia Barnes’ performance was also notable, as she expressed such a natural motherly presence that her scathing response to ‘since when were you the mother in this house?’ ensured the audience’s support rather than reproach.
What Becomes? – a remarkable production at the drama barn – is a play I highly recommend you see. Thomas Ryalls’ script offers an incredibly moving consideration of female identity and the convoluted relationship between ostensibly protecting one’s family and offering genuine support. With an array of outstanding performances that reveal the attentive and proficient influence of Katie Wilkinson’s direction, the characters’ desire to dance in the street will certainly catch hold.