“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.” A very British poet, Philip Larkin‘s words distil the essence of the parenting paradox into just a few simple lines. With Subject Mater, London-based theatre company Woven Voices attempt to do the same in a boundary-pushing new play – with a very un-British feel.
Writer and star Nadia Cavelle plays one of three unnamed siblings who, over the course of the show’s hour-long runtime, revisit chapters from the life of their deceased mother. An eccentric Frenchwoman with a penchant for cookery, quirkiness and delightful turns of phrase, the mother has left an indelible impression on her offspring that evokes both happiness, anger and incredible sorrow.
The trio enter the stage dressed in khaki canvas shirts and slacks, before drawing straws to see who will take on the role of their departed matriarch for today’s show. Cavelle picks the short straw and, with great ceremony and pomp, dons the dress, heels and whimsical mannerisms of the woman, using kitchen utensils and appliances to stand in as proxy replacements for her husband and children.
It’s an odd set-up which presents an off-kilter and slightly dystopian aesthetic, allowing us to peek at the manic depression hiding behind their mother’s kooky smile. Very much more of a Betty Blue type than an Amelie, the tragic heroine of the piece is equal parts charming and chaotic, oscillating between childlike wonder and dejected despair with concerning alacrity. As the three children continue their game of dress-up, the mystery of their mother and their own feelings towards her come unravelling at an alarming pace.
The acting is exemplary throughout and although a native might contest otherwise, Cavelle’s French accent sounds impeccable to the untrained ear. Her monologues are the piece’s real treasure, full of clever pirouetting wordplay and capricious tautologies, and her delivery of them injects the joie de vivre necessary to contrast with the play’s darker moments.
As a foray into a new type of theatre and as a semi-autobiographical examination of Cavelle’s own experiences, this hidden gem of the Fringe manages the difficult feat of being both genuinely moving and hysterical, sometimes at the same time. Accessible and elegant but still obscure and original, Subject Mater is a triumph from start to finish.