In 2011, Diana Quick starred in a one-woman play built around 11 Skype calls from a mother to her daughter. Judy makes video recordings from her home in north London, speaking about her work with various charitable organisations and asking her daughter, Helen, to call back. Helen, working in the Palestinian city of Hebron, maintains an icy silence.
Originally directed by Michael Longhurst for the HighTide festival, the drama has been revived by Longhurst for the Donmar Warehouse, where he is artistic director, with Quick returning as the charismatic, domineering Judy.
Its central theme of remote communication and the socially distant way it was filmed (using a webcam) is fitting for our times, and Adam Brace’s script adapts so well for the screen that it could have been written for the medium. As Judy makes her video calls, her computer screen becomes ours and the backdrop is various rooms of Quick’s own home. The decision to keep its original setting of 2010, with all its political references (to Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg among others), is a judicious one. The play is less about the limits of remote technology and more about communication itself – or the lack of it – between a mother and a daughter.
It begins with Judy’s “sozzled” ramblings on New Year’s Day (she tells Helen about the previous night’s party, the black ice outside, the gritters, even the colour of her “power” drink), and the babble seems like a wilful distraction from all she wants to say to Helen.
Later, she makes a wry joke about having a “one-way conversation” with her daughter but it sounds like a Freudian slip. “I barely know anything about your life in Hebron,” she says, and quickly changes the subject back to herself. But Helen, in her silence, suggests she knows her mother only too well and is sick of her.
Judy is painted as the consummate liberal-leftie keen to do good (there is an extended joke about an Afghan refugee whose approval she and her Islington neighbours compete for), but Brace’s gentle satire carries sympathy for Judy, too.
Quick inhabits the role with a majestic ease, pulling back from playing Judy as a straightforward parody and infusing her with just enough vulnerability and emotional complication to make her human and horrible at once in a space of just 30 minutes.
However controlling and cruel Judy is to her daughter (she uses the inheritance as leverage against Helen and derides her efforts to make a difference in Hebron), we still feel for this mother – a former lawyer who has been forced into retirement against her will and is desperate to make a difference herself.
“I’ll change. I won’t interfere any more,” she promises Helen in her most emotionally exposed message, though she shows us in the very next video call that she is incapable of keeping to that promise. It is a quietly tragic portrait of older motherhood and a reminder, in our socially isolated times, that distance from those we love can be just as abject when it is existential, not physical.
Midnight Your Time is available on the Donmar’s YouTube channel until 20 May.