The Mother review: Pangdemonium’s production of the Florian Zeller play has been a long time in the making, but is thoroughly worth the suspense

the mother

It’s not an easy watch – no Florian Zeller play ever is – but there is a deftness and lightness of touch in The Mother that makes the 90-minute performance fly by

Editor’s note: The Mother is happening at the Victoria Theatre until 7 November 2021. Buy your tickets here

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From left: The Mother features Jamil Schulze, Mehr Dudeja, Janice Koh and Adrian Pang

As a kid I loved comics. Not comedians, but those papery things in print. I was awake at the crack of dawn every Saturday to await the delivery thereof from the paperboy (anyone remember them?) and was subsequently incommunicado for the time it took to pore through every word and image in the likes of Whizzer and Chips, Scorcher, and Cor!! 

One of my favourite strips was entitled Willy Worry, and it was about a boy who was a born pessimist and always expected the worst. Having been given a tiny bit of information in an early panel, he would set out to imagine the worst-case scenario as a result of what he thought he knew. It always ended badly in his imagination, but his speculations were invariably wrong, as the truth was revealed at the end, and everything turned out well. 

Every single week he worried, while never really having anything to worry about, but he had a lively imagination and, clearly, a negative, nigh-on nihilistic mindset that seemed to resonate with me as a child.

The reason I mention this is because I started thinking about Willy while watching Pangdemonium’s production of The Mother at the Victoria Theatre. The audience was sparse… I mean, properly socially distanced for a performance long in the making – it’s been readied and postponed at least twice, and even had to accommodate a change of cast; not perhaps at the 11th hour, but certainly after 10.15pm. 

All I can say is that it was thoroughly worth the wait. In my preview of the piece I talked about the difficulties the production had faced through the eyes of lead actor, Janice Koh, and director, Tracie Pang. I can only imagine (like Willy, perhaps) what they must have gone through over the months, and also how good it must feel to finally get the show up and running. 

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Adrian Pang as the father and Janice Koh as the mother; both terrific in very challenging roles

It’s not an easy watch – no Florian Zeller play ever is – but there is a deftness and lightness of touch in this production that makes the 90-minute performance fly by, keeping every audience member fixated on the stage. I’m not entirely sure that I even blinked in an hour and half, but I guess I must have done. 

When I spoke to Janice Koh about the part and her return to the theatre after many years, she was understandably apprehensive. Anne (the mother) is a difficult role; challenging, and forcing the actor to draw on resources that they may not even imagine they had. It sounds almost disparaging to describe her performance as ‘effortless’ – because perhaps, it implies a lack of passion and engagement.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth in Koh’s masterful tour de force – without ever having to force it – that saw her portray a woman ‘on the edge’ with remarkable subtlety and nuance. Histrionics would have been easier to play, but Koh’s diversions between the tropics above and below the equator of reality were quite brilliant. She became the title character on stage when she first opened her mouth, and never relinquished the position, pleasingly eschewing the potential melodrama in favour of a depiction that reflected the narrow band that exists between what we laughingly refer to as ‘sanity’, and struggling with mental health issues. 

Anne is not well. She is suffering from loss – possibly post-partem depression more than 20 years in the making. Her life has lost its meaning since her son flew the coop to live with another woman (whom he clearly loves), ‘neglecting’ his mother and committing the heinous crime of wanting to grow up and have a life of his own. This undermines Anne’s reason for being, she feels, and all she wants to do is go back to the days when her children needed her, and she felt useful, of value and the provider of breakfast. Those days are gone, and Anne’s descent into the rabbit hole of fear, pessimism and hallucination have been established to the extent that most of the time she doesn’t quite know where she is or what’s going on. 

Herein lies the brilliance of the play, because neither does the audience. Ever. Bouncing between what has happened, what may have happened and what might happen is the theme that pays tribute to the human mind – both that which is functioning ‘properly’, and that which might be missing a few tricks. Willy Worry would have had a field day with the lighting within the set that sparks off like neuronic impulses in the brain – each scene reflecting the actual and the imagined; each strobe challenging our perception. The problem is (and this is also the delight of a well-wrought play) we don’t know which is which. 

I feared for the son and his girlfriend after the first 20 minutes of the performance. The mother (Janice Koh) and father (Adrian Pang) had already created such a dynamic on stage that I think every audience member would have been quite happy for that to have continued for the duration. Once again, and I’ve said this before, Adrian Pang is a very giving actor, and, I’m sorry; actors are not renowned for being selfless. Somehow, he manages to resist every temptation to steal so much as a moment – operating as the master facilitator – absorbing everything and giving out exactly what Koh needs for furtherance. It’s a great skill. 

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Jamil Schulze, the son, and Janice Koh, the mother

When the son, Nicholas, is introduced, I worried. Willy would have done the same. There was an already-established stage rapport, and two characters who we (as audience members) were getting to know well – a triumph in itself for the words as well as the directorial input. I was comfortably uncomfortable in the space, and then, all of a sudden, another character appeared; and then another. I became discomforted. 

I felt for the incoming actors; Jamil Schulze (Nicholas, the son) and Mehr Dudeja (Emily, the girlfriend) but I needn’t have. They were both excellent, especially having to adapt their stage personas to whatever ‘reality’ Anne was in. Once again, neither of the actors tried to do too much – despite the obvious temptation – and this (once again) is down to sound directing and the sense of control that beautifully underpinned the titular character’s relinquishing of it. Both Schulze and Dudeja displayed very good stagecraft and were eminently watchable, drawing focus when appropriate and yielding when necessary. Even the ‘minor’ parts in this play were treated with an attendant respect that reflects the playwright’s metier, which suggests a thoroughly thought-through dramaturgical process. 

This is a play that has to be seen. Not only because we’ve been hankering for live theatre for several months, but also because those who have produced this work have suffered for their art. Pangdemonium’s production of The Mother is scintillating, compelling and nothing if not stimulating. It’s something of a mind-f**k, but that shouldn’t deter. 

Yes, it’s been a long time in coming and there have been obstacles along the way for the actors, director and production crew alike. As Willy might have done, I worried whether or not they would have been able to pull it off. But they have. Quite brilliantly. 

We’ve all missed live performances over the last several months. Please don’t be an arse and miss this one. 

The Mother is happening at the Victoria Theatre until 7 November 2021. Buy your tickets here