REVIEW: Outta the Mouths of Babes (Auckland Fringe)

Review by Erin O'Flaherty

[Speaking Freely]

This year Basement theatre offered the provocation to artists of making documentary theatre for Fringe 2021. This is intended to democratize the theatre space; to make it more accessible and less elite. To put the lives of the everyperson front and centre and explore notions of authenticity.

Outta the Mouths of Babes centres Jude Lowry, “a mother, grandmother and great grandmother” (according to the program). Through pre-recorded interviews and live-filmed storytelling sessions while making chutney, we hear tales of her life – first as a daughter, then as a mother. But this show is not just about Lowry. It is about three women – three generations. It’s about womanhood and motherhood.

It’s also about Tessa Mitchell’s experience of creating this very show with her seemingly reluctant mother and teenage daughter. And it’s about Tessa’s life too, and through this we see some similarities to her mother’s experiences, perhaps some universal truths about motherhood.

Sian Holmes, the last piece in this generational puzzle, is present mostly via screens (text conversations, video chats, etc.) which seems to suggest a generational divide. Technology is a way for Mitchell to connect with her daughter, but it is also something that keeps Holmes distant.

Indeed, beyond discussions of sexuality and politics – themes which are present at a surface level – the play seems really to be about growing up. The two mothers watch as their children become independent. Both centre the moment they first see their daughter being sexually objectified as the moment they realise she is growing up. This kind of ‘unwanted but wanted’ sexual attention is addressed later, suggesting at intergenerational trauma, though not fully exploring it.

There are a number of ideas never quite manage to come to fruition. The show is chock-full of dramatic devices – multi-media, live filming, metatheatricality, spoken word, interpretive gestures and a touch of audience interaction – some of which have a clear purpose but most, unfortunately, do not. The spoken word style of performance seems inexplicably scattered throughout the piece and feels inappropriate for the text. Rather than elevating the words, it disconnects me from them and their meaning. The interpretive gestures feel tacked on to give the show some stylistic flare where really none was needed. The show also suffered from some pacing issues and could do with a bit more room to breathe, allowing for clearer emotional shifts. 

It might have been interesting to use the devices to contrast the performative aspects of theatre with the realism of true stories. But, if this was the intention, it didn’t come across as such. Instead, the myriad stylistic elements seemed to restrict the show, preventing it from fully exploring all the themes and ideas it brought up. The heart of the piece, for me at least, was the stories of parenthood and coming of age, and I wish that was allowed to be enough.

I do have to question if perhaps I’m just not the target audience for this show. This intergenerational work seemed successful in drawing a slightly older demographic to Basement Theatre’s doors. Out of the Mouths of Babes is a lovely, relatable show, but if documentary theatre is about serving the everyday, the real and the honest, then taking away the performative might have aided this piece in telling its heartfelt story.

Outta the Mouths of Babes played Basement Theatre 23-27 February, 2021. 

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