Wish You Weren’t Here – Review – Tanya Moiseiwitsch Playhouse, Sheffield
By Clare Jenkins, January 2024
Who’d be the mother of a teenage daughter? You take her to the seaside for a week to celebrate her GCSE results, pay for a premium B&B room (complete with coffee sachets and custard creams), take selfies with her (you smiling, her snarling) and buy her meals at Wetherspoons, where she asks for oat-milk latte and mineral water. Your response? “Fizzy water?! It’s like drinking a burp!”
And what do you get in return? A 16-year-old wearing a permanent scowl, glued to her mobile phone, weighed down with the troubles of the world (war, climate and environmental catastrophes, ever-lurking racism, #MeToo fear of sexual assault), angst-ridden over the latest toxic social media pile-on.
That essentially is the storyline of Wish You Weren’t Here, Katie Redford’s pacey, clever (and short – just an hour long) exploration of the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, and of the lessons both parties can learn along the way.
Hard-working, brave-faced Lorna (a beguiling Eleanor Henderson, breezy as a Bamforth postcard) persuades her mixed-race daughter Mila (Olivia Pentelow, the brooding essence of smart but vulnerable adolescence) to accompany her to Scarborough for a week of fun and bonding over shared memories.
What she hasn’t realised is that Mila has brought her recently deceased grandmother’s ashes with her, in a (polluting!) plastic sandwich bag, to scatter at the place where the trio enjoyed many a childhood holiday. “I thought about putting her in my pencil case,” says Mila, “but I didn’t want her getting caught in the zip.”
Lorna also hasn’t realised that, in the wake of her Nan’s death, Mila has finished with her boyfriend – and is missing out on her schoolfriends’ girly end-of-exams celebration in London.
Cue the first of many sometimes-poignant misunderstandings which (perhaps a tad over-subtly) build up to an explosive, too-much-truth-revealing row. Result: a gap as wide as Scarborough’s North Bay. How will they bridge it?
Archers fans will know writer Katie Redford as the actress who plays posh Lily Pargetter in Radio 4’s seemingly eternal series. But she’s also an award-winning playwright and currently writer-in-residence at the long-established Theatre Centre, co-producers of this collaborative work, directed by Rob Watt.
As any parent, teacher or youth worker knows, young people can endlessly startle with their insights, experiences and visions of the world. And Redford spent hours in workshops around the country, listening to teenagers talk about their lives.
The result is a funny, sharply-written distillation of the challenges of single-motherhood and adolescence, showing how teenagers try to navigate their way through a world where they constantly feel they’re not pretty/bright/popular – not ‘Beach Body Ready’ – enough. Despite taking ‘body positivity’ lessons from friends or TikTok influencers.
As Mila concludes, after her mother has blathered on about the sad lives of farm-bred mushrooms: “Mushrooms are s*at on every day. But without the s*it they wouldn’t grow, would they?”
It may at times feel more like a radio play, despite Bethany Wells’ simple set (half-a-dozen wooden tables, plus three TV screens showing flickering fragments of quiz shows, news programmes, a home movie). Much is left to the imagination – the amusement arcade, beach, cliffs, dodgems, posh restaurant – and to the captivating acting. But maybe it’s all the more powerful for that.
It certainly left me wanting more. There must, after all, be enough material left to create half-a-dozen more plays.
‘Wish You Weren’t Here’ is on at Sheffield’s Tanya Moiseiwitsch Playhouse until February 10th, before touring to Newcastle, London, Brighton and Guildford
images: Chris Saunders