6th November 2023
By Hannah Goldswain
Dry humour is the flavour of the night with Karl Voden’s Keeping Mum. With a script that doesn’t miss a beat and a cast matching up to the wit, this is a sarcastic and strangely heart-warming tale. Settling into Liverpool Theatre Festival’s stage, St Luke’s Bombed-Out Church, Keeping Mum has the audience laughing from the get-go. It certainly seems a fitting location for a production centred around a Scouse family.
And really, where would family be without a bit of animosity between relatives? Jean (Gillian Thompson) and Denny (Reginald Edwards) have been together for most of their lives, having grown up in Liverpool. They are now settled, with their two children (never seen, but often bickered about) and seem fairly unhappy about their circumstances. So, you can imagine that there’s a sizeable helping of tension between Denny and Jean’s mother, Betty (Jeanette Jarrel), when it becomes apparent neither is too keen on the other. There’s furiously fast-paced back and forth between the three, punctuated with occasional lamenting at how life has inevitably turned out.
Drifting between the trivialities of life with its outstanding loans of gravy boats comes a hatred of the ‘system’. Denny is captivatingly honest in his rant on class divide and wealth discrepancies in between the middle and working classes. Consequently, accompanied by his best friend Tony (Mike Sanders), a plan is soon concocted to right a few wrongs. The plan to use Tony’s mother, Mrs Birtwhistle (Sheila Jones), who has Vascular Dementia, to score Residential Care for his own mother-in-law Betty, allowing his inheritance of a lovely three-bedroom house, might seem flawed to anyone else but Denny is ready for a win.
Playing Mrs Birtwhistle, Jones is utterly charming and compelling in her portrayal of Vascular Dementia. Her flawless execution of Mrs Birtwhistle’s confusion and the humour she brings naturally to the scene is truly well done. It is the stand-out performance of the night, adding a touch of tenderness alongside the constant barrage of deadpan.
The performers use the minimal set of table and chairs to their full capacity, conveying a homely feel. However, portraying the difference between different houses is subtle. It is easily missed and creates slight confusion at the chronology and relevance of events. Whilst the characters have missing mothers to be relocating, a drinking game is introduced which feels random and slightly unnecessary. Here, important issues are brought to light in fleeting, unfeeling ways, leaving the scene feeling rushed and emotionless. So, from lifelong buried secrets to the apparently much more scandalous cheating in a Santa Dash run, the audience are left a little bewildered as to what is trying to be said and how it adds to the plot.
Humour does most of the heavy lifting throughout, even if a few punchlines feel slightly laboured meeting bemused silence. Keeping Mum is a deadpan attempt at investigating family and friends and what they mean to you. It keeps the audience chuckling and has one or two moments that really tug on your heartstrings. Although the plot can feel underdeveloped and irregular at times, Keeping Mum is certainly an entertaining watch.