What's in a question mark?
A lot, says Natalie Wilson, the director of Amanda Whittington's play about four young pregnant women in a home where they are lined up for birth and their babies for adoption.
Be My Baby is set in northern England in 1964 - not the swinging, sexually aware Sixties, but a land of ignorance about birth control. These girls (they are treated as such in this institution) are fond of the ultra-innocent romantic girl-band songs they sing between scenes, songs whose atmosphere poignantly counterpoints the realities of their lives.
Dawn Allsopp's Oldham design is influenced by Victorian municipal buildings: high ceilings, rafters, dark wood. This home is run by a matron who is less cold than she first seems, but always adopts strategies to suit the needs of a smoothly run institution. Here, the women are sheltered from judgment, but, being in society rather than being instilled by the institution, it is inescapable. Norma, who gives birth during the play, feels she is going to Hell. And Mary Adams's mother brings her here to avoid having her daughter, and grandchild, talked of "in a bad way".
If society looks at women as good (virgins) or bad (whores) here are good girls. Mary has always been seen as helpful, and has been a Girl Guide, "increasing", says Wilson, "her mother's devastation at the news of her girl's pregnancy. These women are carrying the responsibility for getting pregnant, yet the men are very present in their absence. The women talk about their men a lot."
Friendships in the home are intense, a necessary support, but short-lived: Queenie doesn't want Mary's address; life has to move on.
Whittington has added two scenes to the published script; in one, Dolores and Mary write letters to their babies' fathers, Mary helping her friend and commenting on her not mentioning the baby. The other scene, opening what is now Act Two, introduces a key decision in a discussion between the matron and young Queenie.
Wilson finds simplicity in the writing and structure, "but underneath, a really complex subtext". Including that question mark. Euphemisms conceal meaning yet reveal the character's intentions. Matron won't talk to Mary's mother about the girl's periods, asking instead when she was last "unwell".
She repeats Mrs Adams's answer as a question: "Seven months?" The tone implies criticism (subtext: so long, and you did not notice?), putting Mrs Adams on the defensive, leaving her feeling exposed. It's no doubt such dramatic writing that makes Be My Baby a grown-up experience.