Sarah Kosar’s last play, Mumburger was about a family whose mother’s last wish when she died was for them to eat her body, in burger form. It was about processing grief and processing meat. Compelling and repulsive by turns.
This new, more large-scope work was actually written before Mumburger. It was Kosar’s calling card in 2013 when she moved to London from America and got accepted into some prestigious young writers’ schemes.
Armadillo is set in America. It’s about a girl, Sam, who was abducted when she was 13 and returned to her family a couple of days later, seemingly unscathed. But, aged 27, she begins reliving the trauma when she sees on TV (a fractured background projection of nightmarish faces conveys the news) another young girl has been abducted.
She also likes to have sex with guns involved, because they make her feel safe, but Sam and her husband John are forced to go cold turkey after a sex game goes bad.
The guns are treated like an addiction; the couple have a mantra of abstinence – ‘no gun, more fun’ which they repeat whenever tempted to revert back to their old ways.
Sam, the armadillo, is a tough but disturbed, slight girl, dressed like a ninja turtle (or, indeed an armadillo) in green neon socks, brown khakis and tight green tank top, which she sheds layers off but it always looks the same (symbolic, eh?). She is the perfect vehicle to persuade us that, in a violent world, guns can be a useful form of protection – but the story doesn’t go far enough to convince us that guns are ever necessary – and I would have liked to have been taken up to that point of sympathising with Sam’s need for a gun.
This production would probably play differently in America, where owning a firearm is a constitutional right – the water pistols they use to try to help them get clean from their gun addiction might seem more ridiculous in a country where you can pick up a pink coloured rifle ‘for girls’ from the weapons aisle in K-mart.
I also wondered if the script had been tweaked and somewhat neutered with the British audience in mind – the overall message of the play was a little muddled and obscure and I wondered if this was due to a toning down of possible references to American gun law from a director’s perspective or if the writer had always wanted to make an ambiguous message.
Anyway, the result was that I left feeling a little bit unclear on what the main message was. The play touches on many intriguing themes like trauma, the twisted way abuse makes people feel, an individual’s right to choose and, of course, gun ownership but there wasn’t a clear journey for any of the themes.
Direction by Sarah Joyce is confident and poised; taught tableaux sex scenes, with lights flickering on and off, mirror the darker, more sinister enactments of the final moments – and each scene is directed with an underpinning of realistic and truthful actions – this production is not played for laughs, and doesn’t acknowledge its own slightly unusual premise, and this makes it utterly believable.
It’s also testament to Kosar’s confident writing and the conviction of the three actors – Michelle Fox as Sam, the Armadillo of the story, Mark Quartley as John, her husband, and Nima Taleghani as Sam’s dopey brother Scotty – that potentially implausible scenes are rendered believable.
Designer Jasmine Swan has cluttered the set with the accoutrements of a modern apartment; there’s a TV, a computer, a sofa, loo, shower, bed, pond, trees – it’s a bit encumbered and rather literal for a play that dips its toes into the surreal.
The shower is particularly redundant – none of the characters takes a shower – and then when you finally see a use for the pond, when Sam decides to go swimming, she doesn’t use the pond. Instead, the bed becomes a symbol for the swimming pool – and taking a deep-dive into her subconscious.
I felt that a bed a fridge and a sofa would have been sufficient to suggest an apartment and allow more space for the actors to play their gun-fights without being restricted by so much furniture.
It was an interesting, smart production, but might have benefited from less clutter, both physically and narratively.
After her Edinburgh and Vault Festival hit ‘My World Has Exploded A Little Bit’, Bella Heesom’s second play is an exploration of ladybits, and the ways in which our society and environment have negatively affected our attitudes towards them.
Heesom plays the Brain and Sara Alexander plays the Vulva in
this surreal dialogue which spans the ways we feel about our bodies from
infancy to adulthood. Brain is uptight and stiff as she processes the messages
she learns from men and boys and how to behave, what to hate about her body and
why sex is all about pleasing men. Vulva is a sensuous, innocent and feral
creature, that Brain constantly tries to discipline and contain.
At first Vulva and Brain get along, they play together in the woodchip-covered floor of the cocoon-womb-woodland set, hung with moist ferns, designed by Elizabeth Harper and lit within alternating hues of red and green by Jess Bernberg. It’s like they’re performing inside a moist terrarium. It’s earthy – just how Heesom says she wants sex to be.
The script is beautiful, with its poetic descriptions of erupting orgasms and fear about letting go with a sexual partner.
When Brain goes to secondary school and learns about periods
and sex, her relationship with Vulva, gets more corrupted.
‘The boys say you smell of fish,’ says Brain.
‘Is that bad?’ asks Vulva.
‘But don’t they eat fish?’ says Vulva, her eyes wide and
Through a series of deceptively simple messages projected on the rear wall, like ‘Only boys masturbate’ and ‘Virginity = precious’ or ‘ Sex = penis in vagina’, we see how our ways of speaking about sex, even from a young age, lead to a fractured sense of sexual identity for women. As the story goes on, you see the sorry lot of women everywhere represented by the arguments between Vulva and Brain which reveal increasing dissociation between the act of sex and what our culture deems to be ‘sexy’.
As she grows up, we see Brain trying hard to process these conflicting messages about how she should look and behave. She starts oppressing poor Vulva in the process. Through a series of arguments, physical battles, and dance sequences, the fractured relationship builds to a point of near destruction. Vulva is being killed by the thousand cuts that we a society have internalised – that women have to be a thousand different things every day – that we are here predominantly to entertain – and that our sexual selves are insignificant.
That is until Vulva rises from the ashes and attempts to heal the severed connection between itself and the Brain.
There’s bravery and daring in this piece. It takes courage to put this much questing vulnerability into a performance, but it pays off by resonating with, I imagine, every woman in its audience.
This show will take you on an emotional journey – and hopefully, ultimately, a healing one.
Mother. Virgin. Whore – the modern sex worker has to be a lot of things to a lot of people. Joana Nastari’s show invites us to examine our own prejudices and preconceptions of what a sex worker is and to challenge them.
The show begins like a cabaret of strippers; different strippers talk about their experiences – and strip. This can involve different strippers on different nights depending on when you see the show but last night we saw ‘Selena’, real name Esmerelda – who also goes by The Topless Romantic.
She is effervescent in all red underwear. She shares some cringy moments from her time as a ‘stripper baby’ – which means a newbie stripper – in a disarmingly funny routine that’s part stand-up, part confessional theatre, part strip show. Even she can’t define it, calling it: whatever this is. She holds something back though – saying therapy helped a bit but stripping changed her life – we never fully learn about the trauma she endured at a young age that she says made her feel she didn’t fit well in her own body.
‘Prince of Provocation’ ChiyoGomes performs his frenetic striptease to “My Name Is Prince” by Prince and The New Power Generation.
And then it’s on to the main bit – Joana Nastari. She looks a bit like a young Liv Tyler and her dancing is A-maze-ing.
“I’m Holly and I babysit grown men. A therapist in thigh highs,” she declares, before a backdrop of in feathered palm trees. Tonight she is her stripper alter ego Holly, who has yet to confess to her mother what her real job is.
We see Holly on a typical night, hustling for customers and being fined every time she looks at her phone by the woman who runs the club. It looks exhausting – gyrating for men whose breath smells of fags and idiotic city boys who want to save her but not pay her. If anyone thought stripping was an easy job this proves it’s not at all.
The pacing here is a bit erratic and some parts are over-laboured as we see Holly getting high and trying to drum up custom by chatting up every group in the club room “Hi,I’m Holly” is repeated dozens of times and it gets a bit worn out as a theatrical device.
Holly takes too many uppers and ends up tripping through her ancestry – back through the transport ships her ancestors took to Brazil, further back, to a time where they lived in a sort of Jungle Book, where their bodies weren’t ornaments, but instruments of power. Holly’s ancestor used her body to fight a wolf, it seems.
The drunken dancing we saw earlier in the strip club is transformed into powerful, piston-like movements here in this dream-like parallel life, the lights descend to a dull green and she reconnects with her real self.
This transcendent experience is moving but doesn’t fit in well with the rest of the play – whose message is all about letting strippers get on with their jobs and being a good ally. The wolf-fight scene was let down by some of the writing – “I howl – the wolf howls” – repeated x 3, lacks the profound resonance that Nastari may have intended , while the dance and lighting and smoke machines here were effective this scene as a whole just seemed like it was from a different play about body acceptance rather than the job of stripping – maybe it would have fitted better in “Gazing at her Wondrous Vulva the Woman Applauded Herself” which I’m reviewing next – maybe they could make something together. I’d definitely want to see that.
Ad Libido was selected for Litmus Fest at the Pleasance Theatre last year and following a successful run at Vault and the Fringe, it now arrives at Soho theatre.
Fran Bushe’s comedy show tells the story of her long ordeal of trying to enjoy sex ever since the age of 16. Now 31, Fran has been diagnosed with ‘Female Sexual Dysfunction’ a rather antiquated term for women who don’t enjoy penetration. Told with warmth and sincerity, she keeps nothing back as she reads verbatim from her teenage diaries, describes her admiration for dolphins in coitus and recounts her adventures at a sex camp.
We’re also treated to songs inspired by past lovers,
including ‘I can Fix You’ about a man who thinks he is the best at sex and an
ode to being honest in the bedroom.
While being very, very specific about Fran’s misadventures,
the tightly-structured play also strikes a universal note about the pressures women
and girls are put under to perform and cater to mens’ egos in the bedroom.
With a set covered in
gold tinsel and Fran’s turquoise dungarees and glitter top sparkling up the
room, its hard to feel down about Fran’s sad Yoni. This is ultimately an
uplifting show about self-acceptance and self-expression – and Doing It on your
The audience are treated to free lube and asked to write messages to their teenage selves, inspired by the play – which Fran posts to her Instagram – there are plenty of notes saying ‘It’s OK to Wait’ but quite a lot along the lines of ‘Everything will be fine’ and ‘Sex isn’t wrong’. If there’s one show to send your teenage daughters to, let it be this imaginative, fun and ultimately uplifting one.
The worst piece of theatre I ever saw was at Edinburgh in 2013. Two pretty, very posh girls had hired one of the stages in the Pleasance to talk about how they were so posh and so privileged that they couldn’t feel empathy. Their life had just been so damn easy, they couldn’t even imagine what hardship was like. They had had such an easy ride, they claimed, they couldn’t even cry. They proceeded, over the next hour, to demonstrate this by showing video and audio clips of sad things and then showing that they were unaffected by them; Bambi dies, nothing, Pheobe in Friends gives up her babies, nothing. They began rubbing each others’ eyes with onions – still nothing. The video clips got increasingly graphic until the point where the show became offensive. They started playing audio clips of the last surviving moments of people who died in the Twin Towers – the calls they made to their loved ones before they were killed in the September 11 attacks. They stood in front of them and shrugged.
So very little thought or imagination had gone into the show, it was astounding. It was as though they’d only planned the show the evening before.
Barzakh, part of conceptual artist Sean Rogg’s ongoing Waldorf Project wasn’t as bad as that show. It was very unpleasant – in that all the participants were subjected to physical discomfort and manhandled – but it wasn’t thoughtless – or entirely pointless.
Quite the opposite, in fact, I got the sense that rather a lot of thought and even care had gone into, say, considering the exact amount of pressure the performers could apply to our heads in order to tilt them backwards and pour cheap booze down our throats without causing any actual pain.
Barzakh is an Arabic word meaning “obstacle”, “hindrance”, “separation”, or “barrier”, designating a place between hell and heaven, which probably should have given me a bit of a clue about the experience.
“My guard / torturer/alien was a bit too forceful and actually smacked my forehead into the concrete wall at this point.”
Inside a warehouse near Welwyn Garden City, me and my fellow victims were asked to strip and change into black t-shirts and shorts, then dragged by actors dressed in a plastic-y black suit with something like a charcoal pore minimising mask on their face one by one to another room where we were made to stand against the wall. My guard / torturer/alien was a bit too forceful and actually smacked my forehead into the concrete wall at this point. This was followed by an interminable wait facing the blank concrete wall, whenever I turned around, my head was gripped and turned back to the wall, then I felt a push to the back of my knees and I was ‘encouraged’ to kneel, fed some sort of jelly and had cheap vodka poured down my throat, then led to another room where custard was thrown at me, then left to wait to face a wall again.
The viscous liquids and periods of passive waiting continued for a couple of hours. It was at best, a bit boring and at worst extremely unpleasant – we got so cold from the liquids on our bodies that we were shaking with the cold.
There was a bit where we had just been covered in a poo-like substance that contained coffee grounds and were encouraged to jump up and down very closely together, so the gritty bits scratched our skin. This, I think, was meant to make us a bit warmer, but it was followed by a slow hands-and-knees crawl across a cold, uneven floor, so it didn’t do much to increase our body temperatures.
During the final part of the evening, the actors changed into angelic white gowns. Finally! I thought – this must be the ‘heaven’ part of the experience, we’ll feel transcendent euphoria! We’ll hug and laugh and bond and feel amazing. But no. They had us lay down and then shone really intense strobe lighting in our eyes for far too long – ten minutes maybe? it was painful. There was a moment of calm, when they laid a silvery fabric over us. I wasn’t too cold and the hard floor wasn’t totally uncomfortable, the silver thing made interesting patterns in front of my eyes and I wasn’t in any major discomfort, my thoughts were allowed to flow freely and a voice in my head appeared and said: “This will all be over soon”.
“If he’s managed to recreate any human experience, it’s not that of someone who has climbed Everest, it’s more like recreating the feeling of a wet weekend spent camping in Bognor Regis.”
Three and a half hours, that’s how long it took. It felt like seven.
Sean Rogg is very convincing – when you read the quotes from him in this article publicising Barzakh, in Wired – you think, ‘Wow! this guy has tapped into something transcendental, something truly mind-altering’. And maybe he thinks he has. He calls it ’empathy creation’ – but all good theatre creates empathy – so he’s rather missing the point if he thinks he’s unique in creating it. Maybe no-one close to him has had a chance to have a quiet word in his ear and explain that making people feel cold, bored and uncomfortable is not a unique route to creating a mind-altering experience. If he’s managed to recreate any human experience, it’s not that of someone who has spent a month in silent meditation or a person who’s successfully climbed Everest, he’s basically recreating the feeling of a wet weekend spent camping in Bognor Regis.
I was so intrigued by the scientist quoted in the Wired article who seemed to be totally convinced by Sean Rogg and wanted to turn the show into an experiment – according to the headline – I gave him a call. It turns out that Daniel Richardson, who is an experimental psychologist at UCL, is interested in what Sean Rogg is working on and wants to see it succeed, but as the article wrongly implies, he’s not about to stick heart monitors on participants or do DNA swabs, because “Obviously, you have to have certain ethical protocols. I am doing science, I can’t do it without full consent and there are lots of health and safety considerations.”
I did have a lingering concern that we weren’t told where the fire exits were in the dimly lit, vast space in which there were both open candle flames and large swathes of fabric, also, call me a killjoy, but the aforementioned cold, uneven concrete floors and being pushed across lines of cold custard on the floor to make us trip up are just a couple of areas where I wondered whether they had skimped on health and safety assessment.
However, Daniel would genuinely like to see Sean’s ‘experiment’ succeed. “I was intrigued by this idea that he can create something similar to a religious epiphany,” he told me. “You don’t usually get that after three hours in a warehouse in London.”
I’ve heard from other participants that the earlier chapters in The Waldorf Project were lighter and more fun-filled, and perhaps if you had been to the other chapters, this chapter would have made more sense taken in the context of the whole. Also – maybe Sean had begun to achieve something wonderful in these chapters and then took a wrong turn with this latest one.
I voice my feeling that what is happening in the experiment isn’t ’empathy creation’ as Sean Rogg hopes but maybe, if anything, bonding through shared experience. In this case – a thoroughly unpleasant experience, somewhat akin to an evil day spa.
“I would like to see it succeed,” Daniel tells me, “I entirely agree [that it is more like bonding than empathy] and Sean would be open to that idea.”
“But there is a theory that if people experience dehumanisation then they double-down with wanting to connect to others – so if you increase cortisol levels, which is linked to stress response, this may increase empathy.”
So maybe there’s something in this idea – maybe the issue wasn’t that the experience was a bit miserable – maybe we weren’t dehumanised enough to achieve a result?!
It’s at least an interesting test of how far people will be subjected to humiliation and degradation if they are told it’s for their own entertainment (and a £70 ticket fee).
The resulting feeling was less evocative of transcendental experience and more akin to a boring, wet weekend of camping. A bit miserable and cold – but at least you can go home and have a hot shower at the end.
Given all of this, I was left with the impression that this immersive experience wasn’t like the girls with the onions, in fact I think a lot of thought had gone into the work, however ill-judged it might have been. I don’t think this was a cynical attempt to separate people from their cash (again; £70), or to simply sadistically torture naive Nathan Barley types who think it sounds cool (cos they read about it in Vice). I just think Sean Rogg has taken the ‘experiment’ in a direction that doesn’t work and maybe has an over-inflated ego when it comes to the grandness of what he’s trying to achieve. By all accounts, chapters one through three focused more on sensual pleasure than discomfort, and perhaps this is a better way to achieve the euphoria he is aiming for.
Two weeks on from the experiment, I’m still talking about what happened to me on that dark evening in Welwyn Garden City, I’m really curious to see what Sean Rogg does next – and I still sometimes get a whiff of mouldy custard and coffee (I think maybe microscopic granules are still embedded in various orifices) so I guess you can say the experience stuck with me.
This neat hour of Weimar-inspired ‘Kabarett’ offers a spectrum of sublime and silly acts composed by helmswoman Bernie Dieter to celebrate and showcase difference and weirdness.
Accompanied by a live band, the show opens with Bernie herself climbing into the audience, singing and coaxing by turns, she encourages a group of men to stroke each other and then carry her on to the stage. She’s both sexy and preposterous as she threatens to sit on the face of anyone who takes her fancy, but her humour never gets threatening – we are always laughing alongside her, invited to be part of her family of freaks for one night only.
The Spiegeltent is a fairly intimate setting; we’re all close to the central round thrust stage and the intimacy is increased by the performers coming out into the audience. The aerial work isn’t suspended high above our heads either, it only happens about a foot in the air, so we can see every judder and flex of the performers’ (often naked) bodies.
The world needs more people like Bernie. Unfortunately she’s one of a kind.
The show changes depending on where Bernie is performing, but the acts are always a mix of circus and cabaret with a modern twist. On this occasion, we are treated to gender-bending contortionism from aerialist gymnast Beau Sargent, whose act is beautiful in its precision and disturbing in its twistiness.
There’s a mime, ‘Le Mime Tipi’, played by comedian Josh Glanc, who no longer wants to mime and discovers fresh childish joy from climbing inside an actual cardboard box, as opposed to an invisible one. Fancy Chance practices the rare and painful art of hair hanging, whereby she is suspended from a giant bun of hair, which she combines with majestic angel wings, as though she’s flying, then sheds them in favour of wearing nothing but her tattoos. Kitty Bang Bang, who I first saw over a decade ago, is now one of the darlings of the burlesque scene. Her act involves fire eating and fire… nipples.
It’s all held together beautifully by Bernie Dieter’s quick wit and fabulous songs, which include ‘Lick My Pussy’ about a sexually impatient encounter and ‘Dick Pic’ in which she receives an unwelcome picture from a man and messages back the owner/ sender with an image of a naked mole rat. She then shows us the picture, blown up to 12 inches by six inches, and the two do look uncannily similar.
It’s exhilarating, exhuberant, silly and captivating and an absolute joy to behold.
“In a time when we are told that difference is something to be feared, ” says Bernie in her final speech, “We F**king celebrate it”.
The world needs more people like Bernie. Unfortunately she’s one of a kind.
Moving the action of Shakespeare’s most popular comedy from an island to a 1920s cruise liner, where those on board perform modern jazz renditions of modern pop songs like Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” might seem like an unworkable staging, but everything about the setting completely works to the point where you start to think the Bard would have always intended the play to look this way.
The Rose Playhouse, a stone’s throw from the Globe, was rediscovered 30 years ago and excavated in 2014. Local rumour has it that this is where the origins of Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, ‘exeunt, pursued by a bear’ came from, because the venue was used for bear-baiting.
It revealed hitherto unrecognised lyrical finesse in Sisqo’s underrated hit ‘Thong Song’.
Renovations are still underway, restricting the stage to a small room with a metal fence overlooking the cavernous, inaccessible works below. When I first visited in 2015, I thought the flat wooden stage with high rails looked rather like the edge of a boat – obviously, I’m not the only one to have considered it.
The SS Illeria sets sail and we are all on board, being treated to 1920s cabaret from the hedonistic crew, who fuse bawdy modern pop with a sultry elegance that the original hits never possessed, like Katy Perry’s ‘Last Friday Night’ retold as a drunken, woozy number and ‘Oops I Did It Again’ as a sultry ballad of regret. Plus, it revealed hitherto unrecognised lyrical finesse in Sisqo’s underrated hit ‘Thong Song’.
It’s funny – and works alongside the casts’ physical comedy to highlight messages in Shakespeare’s script that improve the audience’s understanding – this would be perfect for a school outing because even if you don’t understand every nuance of Shakespearean language, the actors make the plot points as clear and transparent as possible. When Olivia, the famous actress says she won’t marry and have children but will leave the world “divers schedules of my beauty. It shall be inventoried, and every particle and utensil labelled to my will”, she points to magazines with her face on the cover to hammer home the message.
There are some other choice directorial decisions here that work with, not against, Shakespeare’s intentions and help modernise the work. For example Malvolio becomes Malvolia, lady-in-waiting (played with prim staunchness, and later, heart-rending pathos by Faith Turner), a matronly sourpuss who sneers at Viola and her fellow Vaudeville performers and whose pride is her downfall. Similarly, Sir Toby Belch becomes Lady Toby (Anna Franklin), a lewd lover of booze and song – and Feste, the fool, is a delightfully boisterous Hannah Francis, who plays piano and trumpet and sings a bit like Shirley Bassey.
Malvolia is a particularly interesting gender switch because it makes her adoration of Olivia a lesbian infatuation, and ‘Captain’ Orsino’s interest in Viola when she pretends to be a man is ramped up so he is attracted to her both equally when she is a ‘man’ and when she is revealed as a woman suggesting his sexuality is not gender-specific.
The best thing about it though is the pure joy of the performances; it’s impossible not to be swept up in the bawdy jokes and the cross-dressing mishaps. Send all your A-level students! it’s a wonderfully raucous way to learn about the Bard.
Mouthpiece by Kieran Hurley was a hit at Edinburgh last year when it premiered at the Traverse Theatre. It’s now relocated to the Soho Theatre, but it is still very much an Edinburgh play. The text refers to the Traverse and the two actors have Scottish accents, the action is set in Edinburgh. So it feels a little incongruous being performed in the middle of Soho. But there is something effective and faintly disconcerting about a firmly middle class, theatre-going audience coming to see a play about class differences and effectively being made to face the fact they are mere voyeurs to a tale of working-class poverty.
The story: Libby is a middle-class playwright in her forties who hasn’t written a play in ten years, she’s at the end of her tether and has had to move back in with her mum in Edinburgh. One night, on the precipice of suicide, she encounters Declan, a young lad from a poor family living on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Libby sees a hidden talent in Declan’s drawings and tries to encourage him to work on his art, but after spending some time with Declan and learning about the difficulties of his life, she begins to feel inspired to write; or more specifically to record Declan and use his words, his accent, his hopes, his family life, as the basis for her next play. The action plays out in a black set in a white box, with stage directs displayed in direct text above the actors’ heads.
Libby also steps outside the action to explain the technical processes of playwriting in the middle of the action, reminding us all that we are watching a play created by her character, in the play. This device really works to draw attention to the central question: who owns your story? and how much should a playwright borrow from real-life before they end up copying it wholesale?
The sleek design, by Kai Fischer, makes reference to how ‘meta’ the play is: the stage is a big square box, framed like a TV screen, which the actors step in and out of, overtly breaking the fourth wall, there’s a play within a play that draws attention to the story of Declan, a young, artistically talented boy from the estates around Edinburgh, who has a lack of opportunities and is hampered by a dysfunctional family who prevent him from flourishing and how his story and stories like his continue long after the curtain comes down (In fact, the curtain doesn’t come down, the actors step outside the box for the curtain call).
On the one hand, it’s a theatre show for theatre people, with plenty of in-jokes about the lofty aims and transformative power of the theatre, which will almost always guarantee your play some degree of critical attention, but, more interestingly the performance has generally been celebrated for brilliantly drawing attention to below the breadline poverty in urban populations, and exploitation of stories that belong to other people. If a playwright tells your story, using verbatim transcripts as their foundation, does it stop being your story once they tweak it and put it on stage?
Of course this debate rubs up against the argument that actors shouldn’t be limited by their background, gender or colour. Calls for colour-blind and gender-blind casting are generally applauded by industry leaders – the message being that the craft of acting by its nature involves understanding and portraying multiple lives.
But where do the writers fit in this? The slogan ‘Slay in Your Lane’ pops to mind. Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené’s ‘Black Girl Bible’ that popularised the phrase talks of the struggles of black women in business. Their book was a revelation because it found there some were struggles common to black women in business that other women in business did not experience. The essence of that slogan has come to mean: do your thing, do it well, but don’t step on other people’s toes, don’t try to do something someone else is trying to do, just do your thing, brilliantly.
So, my point is, for writers, the rule is different from actors: Theatres want authentic stories and authentic voices, but for writers appropriation isn’t cool.
Mouthpiece comes down clearly on this side of the debate. Libby, a suicidal playwright played with nervous tension and a sense of fraught low confidence by Neve McIntosh and takes advantage of Declan (played with on-point Edinburgh slang and fractious teenage mannerisms by Lorn Macdonald) on multiple levels in order to use him for her own gain; to make a successful play out of his story.
While Mouthpiece brings up issues of class and exploitation with compelling finesse, it might have been interesting to see a story that wasn’t so black and white – where Libby didn’t exploit Declan’s story so completely, or where Declan had something to gain so that the exploitation was mutual – it might have prompted more questions at the bar afterward about where the line is between being inspired by someone else’s story and stealing it and how much credit to give them for it.
This brilliant double-bill focusing on lack of social mobility and lack of care for Britain’s working class women sees both one-woman plays sharing a stark white set with a box of white vertical strobes lights – caging them in. We learn the two protagonists are literally and metaphorically trapped by circumstances they were born into and, surrounded by prejudice, escape is nearly impossible.
First up is Box Clever, which has just been nominated for two Offies for both Red Lily Roche’s performance and Monsay Witney’s wonderful script.
Box Clever tells the story of Marnie, a working-class mum and the many difficult and destructive characters in her orbit who are preventing her from escaping her toxic relationships, the rat-infested women’s refuge she’s stuck in and most importantly, they want to keep her away from the daughter she’s trying to protect.
Playwright Monsay Whitney’s witty, intense monologue ranks among some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever come across and Red Lily Roche’s thrilling performance portrays 21 different characters with a deftness and ease that is a marvel to watch.
The tightly-written script draws Marnie as a difficult, angry, yet ultimately sympathetic character, struggling to keep afloat in a system that threatens to push her under. In a beautiful example of showing-not-telling, we learn how different procedural outcomes from the police, social services, social care and the benefits system conspire with personal prejudice to punish Marnie when all she is trying to do is be a good mum.
It’s a play that starts off funny before landing a suckerpunch that makes you sit up and realise that while Marnie is fictional her story is not.
This is then cleverly followed by KillyMuck, which doubles down on the theme that being working class, or ‘underclass’ as Killymuck writer Kat Woods frames it, means you are not offered a fair chance in society.
Longlisted for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award and shortlisted for the Filipa Bragança Award, Killymuck offers a more instructional take on the issue of class life in Britain. The main character, Niamh, recounts semi-autobiographical events from Woods’ upbringing on a council estate in Ireland, re-enacting remembered slights, including an abusive father and teachers who dismissed her as ignorant because of her class. This is regularly peppered with lessons and statistics as Niamh (played with childlike joy and pedagogical assertiveness in turns by Aoife Lennon) leaps out of character and into the here and now to lecture us on studies and statistics that back up her experiences – she even draws a diagram on a whiteboard style backdrop.
This serves to both reassert that the problems in both these shows are real; working-class women are being let down by systematic failures in our social care and benefits systems right now. But the distancing jolt of coming out of character to offer a lecture made me care less about them. While Box Clever harnesses the power of theatre to show us the story of one woman’s life, thereby highlighting the plight of many in her same situation, Killymuck feels a little too preachy to be fully convinced or immersed in the story. However, Chris Sonnex’s choice to program them together was a great one. Together they are more than the sum of their parts, as Niamh’s dogmatic approach hammers home the unavoidable truth of Marnie’s life – she is stuck, from birth, she has been stuck, and her children and their children will continue to be stuck at a disadvantage until real systematic change occurs.
Finally, and perhaps not least of all – and I’m saying this because it clearly informed my judgement of the show – I felt quite a lot of Niamh’s upbringing was quite similar to my own – unlike her, I had great parents – but the White Lightning binges she describes, the bullying, the unfounded judgement from teachers – they were all features of my childhood and adolescence growing up in south-east London / Kent suburbia, and I guess that, weirdly, made me less sympathetic to Niamh’s story, because it just seemed quite normal to me. Maybe more needed to be made of her father’s violence – it seemed skimmed over in places, and maybe that’s because there’s some autobiographical detail Kat Woods didn’t want to share. There is also the fact that, as Kat / Niamh says in the show, she escaped, she got a good education, she found a way out. She’s now making theatre. The key to understanding the piece is, I think, to bear in mind that she is the exception, not the rule.
“There is a forgotten segment of society that we never talk about when it comes to the arts” she said in a statement about the work, “the lower classes. The underclass. The benefit class. These stories need to be told and need to find representation on stage. We are in danger of theatre becoming an elitist domain. Let’s create theatre for all not just the few.”
For anyone complaining this week that Fleabag is too upper-middle class, if you want to see more working class narratives being performed, go watch and support these shows. You won’t regret it.
Killymuck and Box Clever are at The Bunker, 53A Southwark Street London SE1 1RU Tuesday 26th March – Saturday 13th April 2019.
The Yard’s AD Jay Miller directs this atmospheric multiverse in which women are men are women are witches and some of them are dressed as Asda security guards and some of them carry giant foam microphones and some of them are demons and who can you even trust? and what can you believe? and, and, and… my head hurts.
Watching this three-hour trippy-trip to Salem, in which a word can get you killed, is a bit like being on Twitter. Alternative facts abound and one badly structured sentence or poorly formed argument and suddenly you are the enemy of all that is good and holy – and you must be hung by the neck at dawn.
The production starts simply and clearly, with rows of chairs labelled with the characters’ names (handy if you aren’t familiar with the play). The walls are wrapped with rows of elastic or thread, like a giant weaving loom, or a cat’s cradle. Arthur Miller’s stage directions and character descriptions being flatly read out. Lighting has a red-tint. The smell of melting wax fills the air. It works – character summaries give on-the-nose insights into the characters and although the rows of chairs are static, the cast’s faces are animated enough that it doesn’t get boring.
Caoilfhionn Dunne plays John Proctor and, in the lead-up to the show, much was made of the fact that the role was being held by a woman for the first time. She was magnificent. Her defensiveness of his/her wife Elizabeth took on new depths of meaning when you saw it as a woman standing up for womenkind being wronged. At other points, she played the role with a constrained masculinity that made you forget she was a woman playing a man’s role and her gender disappeared.
Emma D’arcy (Naomi from BBC’s Wanderlust) was also wonderful. First the woman whose ‘cold house’ kept her from forgiving her husband, then a warmer, tender wife, despairing for her husband’s soul. The final scenes between her and Dunne were beautiful and heart-rending.
Now we must talk about all the stuff – the mixing of costumes from different periods, even within the same scene, the flatscreen TV turned inexplicably on its side in a 17th-century courtroom, the large colourful microphones. The weird, plastic face-masks of the hovering figures that were present but took no action. The drama was enough, the lighting was excellent in its moodiness, the gender-switching was intriguing, the set was fab, there was no need for all the extra, confusing, mind-boggling stuff. Luckily none of that detracted from what was a brilliantly gripping staging of Miller’s classic text, but it didn’t add much either.