Review: Mother Courage and Her Children ★★★ – The mother of all anti-war plays proves a survivor thanks to Josie Lawrence’s damaged Mother

Brecht’s meditation on war usually gets the loud, raucous in-yer-face treatment from directors. Hannah Chissick’s production of Tony Kushner’s urgent translation, which has an all too contemporary resonance as refugees flee wars across continents, is no exception. Yet Josie Lawrence’s Courage finds moments of quiet – albeit quiet desperation – which are much needed breathers on the gruelling journey through 30 years of war across a ravaged Europe. The desperation is for her children’s plight. She is always the conflicted mother as well as the often unscrupulous wheeler dealer – forced to pay a terrible price to survive, even thrive in the theatre of war. And though she is palpably grungy, Lawrence’s Courage is also younger and sexier than I have seen before, an attractive catch for the Chaplain and the Cook (convincing David Shelley and Ben Fox), who hitch lifts on her supply wagon across those battlefields.

This is a religious war, Catholic versus Protestant in a bloody conflagration where the likes of Courage must be quick on their feet to change sides and hoist the right flag when the advantage shifts from one side to the other.

Right up front Brecht/Kushner play devil’s advocate to make a case for the business of war, putting the arguments in the mouths of army recruiting officers, notably that of striking Celeste de Veazey in Chissick’s gender-blind cast. Women make a strong impression throughout, from Laura Checkley’s blowsy woman-in-red Yvette to Phoebe Vigor, mesmerising then heart-breaking as Courage’s dumb, disfigured daughter Kattrin.

There’s useful support from Julian Moore-Cook and Jake Phillips Head as Courage’s sons, honest, simple Swiss Cheese and tougher, less scrupulous Eilif (a chip off the old block). The production’s main drawback is Barney George’s set. The traverse staging looks promising as you enter the auditorium, but when you realise that there is a theatre-long platform behind one half of the seating, which means half the audience has to turn round and risk neck injuries to see action set there (or simply give up and treat it as radio, as I was reduced to doing), the play becomes alienating in a way that Brecht would not have appreciated. It’s especially galling when the cast sing and play Duke Special’s evocative folk music behind you.

Chissick’s direction also proves surprisingly static, Courage’s wagon, adorned with makeshift awnings and barrels, occasionally gets lugged across the floor. When she moves it at the climax though, Lawrence herself is genuinely moving, recruiting audience assistance. I’ve survived some thrilling epic productions (notably another meditation on war, Peter Brook’s unforgettable nine-hour Mahabharata). But here, with a running time of three hours (the programme, presumably printed earlier, has two hours thirty), the war has rather taken its toll by then.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Scott Rylander

Mother Courage and Her Children runs until Saturday 9 December. 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 3pm (Tue & Sat only). £12-£20. Southwark Playhouse, SE1 6BD. 020 7407 0234. www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk