The setting of the flat is significant as nearby there is a slaughterhouse and a cemetery. These provide constant reminders of death.
Jo has morbid, gruesome dreams about Helen being dead and buried underground. This possibly shows her fear of one day being left totally alone. She brings bulbs to the flat, hoping for them to bloom, saying “it’s nice to see a few flowers.” However, they are neglected and die, symbolising the end of her youthful optimism. It also reflects the damaging effect that neglect has had upon her.
Helen complains that her bed is “like a coffin only not half as comfortable”, demonstrating dark humour on the subject of death. She is essentially joking that in some ways, it would be preferable to the life they have.
Jo learns that her father is dead, with Helen commenting:
“death’s something that comes to us all, and when it does come you haven’t usually got time to ask why”
This furthers the idea about the fragility and shortness of life.
In moments of distress, both Jo and Helen threaten to kill the unborn baby as a way out of Jo’s predicament of having a mixed-race child.
Darkness is also shown throughout, with Jo enjoying the dark winter nights outside but having a fear of “the darkness inside houses”, perhaps signifying her fear of being left alone. In contrast, Helen likes the darkness in the flat, saying “Everything is seen at its best in the dark – including me. I love it.”
Later, when Jo is pregnant and invites Geof into the flat, she won’t let him turn on the light, insisting, “I like this romantic half-light”. This demonstrates how she is becoming more like her mother in wanting parts of herself – particularly her pregnancy and supposed sexual indiscretion – hidden from plain sight.
These motifs of death and darkness show the grim, hopeless backdrop in which the characters live their lives, and emphasise the survival and resilience that they display in order to find moments of joy and comfort.
Music is used prominently throughout the play, as established at the beginning when jazz is played to accompany Jo and Helen moving into the new flat. The music links the scenes and provides a lively atmosphere, stopping the play from descending into grim tragedy.
The use of jazz is significant because, in the late 1950s, it was a big part of youth culture. It was associated with rebellion and subverting conventional ways of living. This style of music suits Jo’s character well, who longs for independence and to fulfil her creative needs.
The characters are often shown enjoying music and dance:
The characters often comment on the “filthy” children playing in the street outside. Peter even characterises them as immoral criminals who will look to steal what they can. However, there is also the sound of the children’s singing, which serves as a symbol of their innocence and joy of being in each other’s company.
Hearing their singing reminds Helen of her childhood and more innocent days:
“we used to play all day long at this time of the year; in the summer we had singing games and in the spring we played with tops and hoops.”Helen
In a similar way, the nursery rhymes that Jo and Geof sing together celebrate innocence and friendship. The simplicity of the rhyme and rhythm of these songs acts as a contrast to the complex relationships and situations the characters find themselves in.
It is important that, as Jo goes into labour on her own, which must be a terrifying situation, she smiles and recites a nursery that Geof had taught her in order to comfort herself.