Last night I went to Watford. There was a good reason – an old friend of mine from college days was doing a one-woman play at the Watford Palace Theatre. Getting into Watford is like driving into Solaris, a one-way spiral to concrete hell. The Palace car park is a triumph of function over design, lowering across the town centre like a premonition of the world's end. I had to do the circuit at least twice to get into it.
Once I was in the theatre, things brightened up a lot – the Palace is a cheerful Edwardian theatre covered in gilt and red velvet, with comfortably bulging balconies. There I sat with my plastic glass of beer, resplendently alone on my night out, waiting to see my lovely friend perform.
Fourteen is a kind of cross between The Diary of Adrian Mole and Kindertransport. It's about a girl with brilliant academic promise growing up in Watford in 1984. She is an only child, and her parents seem to fight a lot. We see her upstairs in her bedroom, chatting to us as though we were the pages of her diary, trying to make sense of sex, scholarship and shouting.
The second act of the play is set in the same town in 2014, and brings us bang up to date. The girl is now a woman. She is a cleaner, bitching endlessly and enviously about her clients, who seem incompetent, patronising and pointlessly wealthy. She has a daughter, on whom she dotes. She constantly helps the girl with her homework. Something has gone very wrong. Why is she 'only' a cleaner, taking cash in hand and signing on at the same time? What has happened to her promise?
As the monologue goes on, we begin to grasp the grim tragedy underlying her change in fortunes. She is stoical and proud, will not accept defeat even though she can see for herself the crashing fall in the status she seemed to be heading for. The ending is bittersweet – it is undecidable whether we should pity or celebrate her.
Yasmin Wilde was just fabulous in the role — to be forty and play fourteen, that's quite something. Her hair in bunches, wearing school uniform, sitting cross-legged on the floor, it could all have been so Daisy Pulls it Off, but it wasn't. Instead, I had that strange confusion you get when you watch people you know acting – which bit is her, and which bit is put on? The writing was so naturalistic that at times Yas didn't seem to be acting at all… but of course that's why she was so good.
Afterwards I hovered about waiting to congratulate her. A couple of people seemed to be waiting as well, but I was too shy to go up to them. When Yas emerged, I realised it was another college acquaintance, together with Yas's husband, whom I'd never met. We repaired to the Watford Wetherspoons, giggling over diet coke and crisps at a high table, as they got the karaoke ready at the far end. The place was full, nothing else was open.
What had punched me in the gut during Yas's performance was the mother-daughter relationship in the second act – although the show is a one-woman play, and we never meet the daughter, herself now turning fourteen, we feel her presence throughout Act 2. The daughter is ashamed of her mother's lowly status, despite all her hard, hard work to raise her well. She is angry when she discovers that her mother does not have a 'proper' job, but signs on – and has deceived her about it. She does not understand. The daughter's shame infects the mother, until she too is ashamed of herself. It was brutal to watch. Is this what I have in store? My daughter's disappointment in me?
We sat there in Watford Wetherspoons: Yas, a fantastic actress, now with children; her friend, also a brilliant actress, now with children; me, a one-time academic, with children; and Yas's husband, a lawyer. With a wife and children.
The three women discussed how gruelling it is to sustain an artistic career after children, the unworkable economics, childcare letdowns, time away, the guilt and unhelpful attitudes – art, apparently, is not 'real' work (except to those who do it). We understood that the men we knew, all those men at college with us, had, somehow, not had these impediments and interruptions (even if they had had children).
We all identified both with the cleaner mother, and with her rich clients. We had all been educated to expect to be successful: economically, in career terms, in our relationships. And be successful as a result of our own very hard work. At 18-21, we had it all. Ahead of us. Yet in our mid-forties, our creative aspirations, which had not been dreams but worked-for realities during our twenties and thirties, were compromised by starting families, and finding out the hard way that there is no support for mothers.
As we walked into the empty, fluorescent-lit car park, I fumbled to say something about this. Yas's friend looked me directly in the eye and said, "Yes, I know. It took me about twenty years to accept it was OK to be ordinary". We got into our cars, and drove out of the multi-storey car park into the night.
It's not OK.
Never give up.