Love Child

Gardens Point Theatre (HIT Productions)


By Joanna Murray-Smith

Professional production, with Amanda Muggleton and Melissa Dransfield

The real star of this show is the design. Pared-back and stylishly post-modern, the set provides the perfect foil for Anna (Amanda Muggleton), who 25 years ago relinquished her illegitimate daughter (Melissa Dransfield) at birth. Now a successful editor of nature documentary films, Anna’s immaculate but emotionless life is lived out in a designer flat decorated in olive-green and pale cream, colours echoed in her olive-drab designer trouser suit, set off by a cream wrap wound around her body in a faintly Japanese style suggesting both exoticism and repression.

A raspberry chair by designer Grant Featherston provides the only touch of colour in this setting, into which comes the renounced daughter, now a famous TV soapie star, dressed in rich colours of blue and dark pink with a few discreet frills. She’s fashionably elegant in a pretty way, in direct contrast to her mother’s classic ’90s chic, and their personalities reflect their physical differences.

Billie, we learn, has been dreaming about her birth mother all her life, but only since her adopting parents died has she felt able to seek her out, a feat she has finally accomplished. This is where the action begins, at the point where Billie goes to meet her mother for the first time, in the expectation that all her childhood fantasies will come true.

From here the play can go one of two ways. Either there will be a painful but ultimately satisfactory resolution, or mother and daughter will decide not to continue the relationship. There’s room for some variations on these themes, but in a play which is advertised as being about “parent-child relationships, redemption and the need for love”, it’s what an audience has the right to expect, and what they probably came to see – a kind of nicely-resolved sociological problem play.

But ultimately it’s not what they get, and by the end of the play I couldn’t decide whether Murray-Smith was being ultra-tricky or downright dishonest. For in a play like this, which deals with such a prominent social issue, and which will probably attract many people who have a specific and maybe an emotional interest in the situation, there is an unspoken pact between audience and playwright that she will play by the unwritten rules of the genre.

Love Child, however, is less of a drama than a morality play. The issues are clear, the characters are emblematic, and the battle lines clearly drawn. The battle is between generations, not just between first and third wave feminism, but between two different kinds of selfishness. For Billie, it’s all about ME – she has been given away at birth, she has always fantasised about her mother, and she believes she has the right to demand emotional compensation and her mother’s love.

For Anna, too, it’s all about ME, but in this case her right to live her own life and not be confronted by a decision she made 25 years ago. To Billie, and to the audience, she seems heartless, in that she has never thought about the child she gave away – in fact, as she tells Billie, she would have aborted the foetus had she not discovered her pregnancy too late. Predictable gasps of shock/horror from the audience, and from Billie of course, because it’s the last thing she wants to hear, or ought to be told. What kind of callous woman is this, who can’t soften the pain she is causing with even the slightest pretence of concern? A little white lie would surely not have gone amiss, we feel.

But Billie is equally callous. She makes no attempt to understand her mother’s position, that of a naïve 17-year-old who discovered that she was pregnant after a brief shipboard romance with a man whose surname she didn’t even know – this was the libertarian seventies, after all, and sex was not a matter of commitment for anyone.

The battle is also between lifestyles. Billie is a soapie star, whose photograph adorns popular women’s magazines. Her next gig is to star in a porn movie, and her ambitions don’t go any higher than that, except a vague fuzzy desire to have lots of babies, an ambition that sits oddly with her own selfishness. Anna, on the other hand, is a university graduate, reads high-brow novels, collects modern paintings and doesn’t watch commercial television. Neither can appreciate nor even accept the other’s interests.

So whose side are we supposed to be on? It’s impossible to like either of these self-obsessed creatures, and your ultimate choice will probably depend on which side of the generation gap you happen to sit.

Until the denouement, that is, after Billie has achieved her goal and reduced Anna to a blubbery mess of self-loathing tears. And for what?

Not for the reason any of us thought. For Billie, who has indeed searched for Anna for many years, is not Anna’s daughter. She was adopted out at birth, but set her ex-lover to find any woman who adopted out a baby at the same time, and we see that her revenge is not personal but general, punishing any woman at random for the faults of her own mother. This is where I lost all respect for the playwright, for the play turns out to be a crude manipulation of emotions for no real reason.

In the end, the play is much ado about nothing, and perhaps that’s the reason that both the actors are so wooden and flat in their performances. Not even the versatile Amanda Muggleton can do much with this cardboard cut-out, unless we can give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she’s playing it to stereotype. Melinda Dransfield is equally shallow, without even the natural sexiness of the character she plays, and a voice that often grates.

But I did like the set.

Director Bruce Myles

Designer Judith Cobb

Played Friday 13 April and Saturday 14 April, 2007

Duration : One hour 20 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Fri 13th April 2007)