“Who listens to me apart from God?,” asks Enid Matthews (Jenni George), the fraught mother at the heart of “Leave Taking,” whose oldest daughter Del (Karen Tomlin) long ago took her emotional leave. Reviving her 1988 play for a U.K. tour by the National Theatre’s education department, playwright Winsome Pinnock tells a fundamentally conventional tale with a mixture of contrivance and empathy. You may feel at the end of “Leave Taking” that you’ve been down this road before, but chances are you’ll also find a lump in the throat as mother and daughter embrace just in time for the final curtain.
The play isn’t remotely in the same league as Pinnock’s 1991 Royal Court “Talking in Tongues,” which remains one of the best plays (and productions) that theater has offered up in recent years. Nor is Paulette Randall’s current Cottesloe staging as vibrant as it could be; at times, play and production seem to be competing to see which can be more pedantic. But “Leave Taking” has a wonderful central character in Enid, and a radiant actress to perform her; it’s only too bad that the play hurries its hoped-for catharsis in place of the sustained emotional wrench that George is clearly ready to provide.
A large woman with a round, kind face, George’s Enid always defies easy categorization, even when the play around her does not. An emigre from the West Indies to Britain, she has sacrificed her own happiness to raise two daughters, Viv (Ginny Holder) and Del, and watches in alarm as Del responds ungratefully.
While Viv is the compliant yet brainy one — her motto is “anything for a quiet life”– Del is the family rebel, and it takes both her Uncle Broderick (David Webber) and Mai, a local “obeah” (Doreen Ingleton) — a West Indian healer and seer — to make Del see that her mother’s combativeness is borne out of compassion.
The play poses a conflict between generations, and also one between cultures. While Enid enthuses about the England she has made home, Uncle Brod thinks the girls have “Caribbean souls,” even if Viv’s lot as the university-bound daughter is to “live out something (her mother) missed out on.”
But though the situation is immediately credible, Pinnock’s plotting is not. The death of Enid’s mother back home seems patly engineered to take the mother-daughter tussle on a further generation; and the pregnant Del’s refuge in act two with the obeah hardly seems likely, since such a tearaway would be far more inclined to seek solace with a friend.
Randall’s staid direction takes its time making the play’s various points, and it tends to indulge the occasional shopworn outbursts — Del’s “I’m not some kid”; Viv’s “I want something more from life”– that Pinnock, in “Talking in Tongues,” proves much too good for. The daughters, too, make such a predictable set of contrasts that one wants less of them and more of both Ingleton’s lively Mai and of Enid.
One would want more of George in any case, so piercing are her emotions — not least in her admission that her “beloved England” has in fact belittled her over time. “I want to go home,” she says, only to end up coming to terms with Mai’s act two creed:”you at peace with yourself, you at home anywhere.” She’s that rare actress whose recognition of the exile of the heart will end up breaking yours.