Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

I Told My Mum I Was Going On An RE Trip

I Told My Mum I Was Going On An RE Trip was staged at Manchester’s Contact Theatre this time last year. One of the issues that author Julia Samuels was trying to raise was the possibility that talking openly about the subject of abortion might help to shift attitudes towards a topic which remains controversial 50 years after it became legal. The filming of the play for the BBC’s ‘Performance Live’ section is a logical step in this process of raising awareness.

The play was verbatim theatre - based on interviews with over 50 individuals ranging from young women, boyfriends, parents, doctors and campaigners. Samuels directed the stage version and, to ensure the maximum authenticity, had the cast wear earpieces through which they could listen to the voice of the interviewee whose opinions they were articulating.

Lindy Heymann, who directed the play for television, retains this technique. Otherwise one might question the extent to which the film can be said to be ‘live’ as Heymann chooses not to record the stage show from Contact Theatre but rather to make a film version. There are few visual acknowledgements of theatrical origins of the play apart from a closing shot of the stage set. Scenes are filmed on location in playgrounds, health clinics, bathrooms and bedrooms. In one scene the cast enact the process of recording the interviews upon which the script was based. The film is, therefore, closer to being a drama/documentary than a recording of a stage play.

The narrative moves in chronological order from the unplanned conception, through realising pregnancy has occurred, determining a course of action and enduring the process. Samuels does not shy away from the controversy surrounding abortion. The script is deliberately provocative and the opinions are expressed in such a subjective manner there is a strong possibility it may make viewers acknowledge prejudices of which they were unaware. The lack of self-esteem or even caution shown by some of the interviewees is shocking; one going so far as to acknowledge that abortion was inevitable as the father was a 21-year old drug dealer.

This chronological approach allows director Heymann to replicate the growing sense of dread at having to reach a decision that the characters are possibly too young to have to consider. The initial tone of the film is light, almost gossipy, with the characters laughing at how silly they were in their youth. The atmosphere becomes tenser and much more disturbing as the process is described.

As with pretty much any play that is adapted to the screen the producers feel it necessary to explain to viewers techniques that are taken for granted in theatre. Julie Hesmondhalgh’s introduction explains to viewers that all of the roles will be played by just four actors (Aizah Khan, Emma Burns, Jamie-Leigh O’Donnell and Dorcas Sebuyange). Television is both an asset and a liability in this aspect of the adaptation. The difference between the various characters is much easier to appreciate as the cast do not have to rely solely on changes in accent or body language but can be filmed in different locations and clothes – a hoodie renders Emma Burns unrecognisable.

Filmed close-ups allow a more subtle form of acting and a level of ambivalence than is possible on stage with silent tears, shifting eyes and trembling legs all suggesting emotions that are not conveyed vocally and may even contradict the spoken statements. However, the close-up is also merciless in revealing the lack of wrinkles and lines on the faces of the young cast which gives the game away when they portray older characters like health professionals.

The film version of I Told My Mum I Was Going On An RE Trip retains the power of the stage version and ensures that the themes are communicated to a wider audience. It will be particularity relevant to young viewers who are least likely to be watching TV late on a Saturday night when the film was broadcast but have a chance to catch-up via the BBC podcast. 

David Cunningham