(Patricia) Ann Jellicoe

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Alan Brien

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Miss Ann Jellicoe in The Sport of My Mad Mother has written what might be called 'a modern surrealist fantasy': an exercise in theatrical collage. Just as the painters tacked scraps of newspaper and torn menus on to their canvas, she has worked into her text the chanted directions from a home permanent-wave kit and a pastiche of a rock-'n'-roll song. The intention in each case is presumably the same—to prove that the most intractable gobbets of the real world can be transmuted by art into art. And she has similarly taken the surface appearance of some contemporary characters—an American social worker, an Australian hell-cat, two South London Teds and their doxy—and pressed them into service as symbols….

Unlike some critics I see absolutely no objection in principle to mixing in every kind of stage convention. The characters talk sometimes to each other, sometimes to the audience, sometimes to a drummer on the side of the stage, and sometimes to the stage-hands and electricians. They sing, dance, chant in unison, moan in couplets. They mime, mug and declaim. It is all rather like the last drunken night of University revue—full of old jokes, crude props, high spirits and low comedy. And often the effect is very funny—sometimes even rather eerie and arresting. But as a play with any precise relevance to any human problem, dilemma or situation, The Sport of My Mad Mother is a flop.

The production is not at fault. Miss Jellicoe has devised some ingenious and spectacular methods of keeping her ideas juggling in the air like Indian clubs. But the clubs are invisible or else so hollow and light that they go up in the air and are carried off by the wind. With the best possible will in the world, I was unable to discover what she had to say. The clues which were underlined, both in text and production, with the heaviest black pencil were exactly those which were most cryptic and impenetrable. Why should Greta (according to the programme note 'an irresponsible life-force') be a raucous Australian with long hair dyed the colour of dried tomato ketchup? What purpose was there in wrapping Caldaro ('Knowledge and Science') as a newspaper parcel? Who is the fieldmouse of a waif in the old army greatcoat who mutters lines of almost Wordsworth silliness which go something like 'Me all soft and loose I lie, Looking empty at the sky'?

Miss Jellicoe has been compared to Ernst Toller, Thornton Wilder and T. S. Eliot. There seem to me to be nearer and less ponderous influences at work a lot of the time. The human parcel, and the parade of the Guys, the unexpected bouts of song and dance, the infectious spurts of make-believe which become reality, are like half-memories of John Cranko. The parody of the schoolroom ('Please, may I be excused?' 'No. Stay behind and fill up the ink-wells') might be word for word from an old Will Hay film. The perming instructions which turn into a jolly concert party chorus derive from At the Drop of a Hat. It is possible to practise collage so passionately that there is no room left on the canvas for any of your own paint. Miss Jellicoe does not carry her magpietude quite to that extent. But it is noticeable that where her observation is most direct and naturalistic—as in the earlier scenes of the Teds' squabble for power—symbol and reality chime most resoundingly together. Conversely, where the symbols get out of hand and start bossing around the characters who embody them, her imagination is at its weakest and her dialogue at its dullest.

Alan Brien, "Tinkling Symbols," in The Spectator (© 1958 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 200, No. 6767, March 7, 1958, p. 296.

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