Edinburgh Fringe is over for 2018, and thanks to the incredible supporters of our crowdfunder campaign, we made it to Edinburgh for the whole month this year, where we applied over 1000 stickers to posters of shows that passed the Bechdel test, recorded two new podcast episodes, and encountered more enthusiastic support for our mission to amplify under-represented voices than ever before.
Looking at this year’s Fringe line-up compared to the previous two years when we’ve visited, it’s becoming possible to believe a significant shift is being made in the overwhelming male-dominance in the festival (and the arts in general). This shouldn’t be viewed as a see-sawing movement, with men’s stories being sidelined by a reductive “year of the woman”, but one brick in the road on a journey to a more equal society, a cog in a movement that includes challenging all systems of privilege and oppression. The appetite for better representation on stage and the quality of work by the artists who fulfil that hunger has been proved by the sell-out runs achieved and awards received by many of the shows we’ve chosen to highlight here. The success of the artists whose work we saw at the Fringe are a solid foundation on which to build a theatre industry that consistently and genuinely values and reflects people from all of the communities who make up the UK and wider world. With a little more investment and commitment from the power-holders and the gatekeepers, and a lot more willingness to move aside more often from everyone currently steeped in privilege, we could be looking forward to full and permanent change.
However, the work is not done yet. Edinburgh Fringe, the festival which many see as a representation of the future of performing arts, and a doorway to opportunities for artists, is still hugely white, and overwhelmingly youthful, with stereotyping and tokenism rife on both theatre and comedy stages, with frequent instances of blatant racism in and around many performance spaces. This year, as ever, venue-owners have come under criticism for under-valuing and mistreating staff. Companies and producers are being called-out for prioritising sales and success over the well-being of artists. The under-representation of disabled artists is shocking, but not surprising, given the inaccessibility of Fringe venues for many disabled people. This is something which venues are working on improving at a glacial speed, often resorting to a one-off ‘accessible performance’ squeezed into an extra time-slot rather than treating this as a serious problem which goes against the “Fringe is for everyone” philosophy, and could in itself be an argument for restructuring the entire festival.
The shows we’re celebrating here are not the whole story. We shine a light on the positive examples of changes to the status quo in the hope that it will encourage artists to know they’re appreciated, as well as helping audiences find the shows they want to see. We want to see this work and more like it coming to more accessible, sustainable, and cost-effective spaces than the Fringe provides, and hope any programmers reading will notice something that looks like it might be what their audiences are looking for. We shout about the brilliance that we find when we looked beyond the sea of stale pale male faces staring us down from the poster-walls of Edinburgh, and will keep doing so until examples such as these are no longer notable.
On a positive personal note, we can report that filtering the shows we see through a lens of ONLY watching Bechdel test passes, and prioritising seeking work by LGBTQ+ and POC artists, was as effective as ever at helping us find the shows that are making a thrilling and galvanising difference. We saw some astounding shows swimming against the tides of homogeneity and making art that reflects humanity in all its beauty, resilience, warmth, hilarity and complexity. In fact, our month ended up being so full of feminist theatre brilliance that it has truly been the biggest blogging struggle we’ve faced yet to choose our faves. We saw definitely many more excellent shows ace the Bechdel test than we have space to mention here, so make sure you take a look at our instagram & twitter for more highlights, and listen to our podcast for interviews with the artists behind some of these shows, and more favourite shows from our guests.
Finally, if you’ve been following our work this month, enjoying our recommendations, and would like us to be able to continue doing what we do all year round, you can now become a Bechdel Theatre Patreon. Support us with $1-$10 a month so we can keep up our work at Fringe and beyond, in return we will reward you with bonus content and ticket discount codes. Win-win.
On to the faves – in no particular order because WE LOVED THEM ALL!
Queens of Sheba
An unflinching look at misogynoir (misogyny directed towards black women), this four-woman show does not shy away from the harsh realities faced by black women in Britain today, and raises up their voices to tell their own truths. Jessica Hagen’s joyously powerful poetic script integrates real-life women’s experiences with a collection of spectacularly harmonised well-known songs, in a series of tightly choreographed chapters, each set in a different environment where black women come up against discrimination, harassment, prejudice and violence.
In an hour that flies by, the audience are swept into several spaces, from an office, to a restaurant to a bar, each vividly conjured on an entirely empty stage by four completely compelling and versatile performers, each with their own unique personal dynamics, qualities and skills, all unified by the elegant and constantly engaging direction of Jessica Kaliisa and slick movement direction of Yassmin V Foster.
Queens of Sheba covers an extensive range of issues including colourism, stereotyping, fetishization, and microaggressions. The four queens on stage paint each example of misogynoir as a specific moment which affect individual women differently, but also clearly highlight the fact that all of these shared experiences of intersecting racism and sexism, from daily jibes from colleagues to headline-grabbing club-policies, are far too common and widespread to be dismissed as one-off incidents. Each chapter of Queens of Sheba is part of one massive societal problem: misogynoir, which is the responsibility of everyone with race and/or gender privilege to address.
We saw a preview of this show earlier in the year (you can listen to Michelle Barwood reviewing it on our podcast) when it was performed at Camden People’s Theatre, and the audience consisted predominantly of black women. Much of the content was received with audible recognition by the crowd.
Seeing the show in the Edinburgh environment, with a majority white and much more male audience, notably changed the way the play landed in the room. It felt like during Queens of Sheba’s Fringe run, the messages of the play were being absorbed more than recognised, with more of the crowd silently rapt and listening to learn, until the curtain call when the room erupted in a thunderous, impassioned, and seemingly never-ending standing ovation. We hope this play will continue to be seen by many more people: both by the black women who want to see their experiences of misogynoir articulated in front of an audience, and by the privileged people who have the power to stop it.
Queens of Sheba sold out its planned post-Edinburgh run at New Diorama, and have promised this is only the beginning of the show’s journey. Follow producers Nouveau Riche for future dates.
Jessica Butcher and Anoushka Lucas introduce this two-hander by saying they will both be playing the same person – Jessica using her words, and Anoushka using her keyboard. The two have collaborated as songwriter and playwright as well as performing in this show, but they don’t remain limited to their roles as singer/songwriter and actor/playwright, often performing in unison, their singing voices overlapping and intertwining, and with Lucas emerging from behind the keys to take centre stage during one particularly powerful moment.
Sparks is a collaboration of the finest kind – the women’s roles seem defined at the beginning of the show, but blur and flex as best serves the story that they’re telling. The harmony of their voices beautifully reflects the natural and intimate connection that obviously exists between them. Putting these two women together on stage playing the same role, different in their jobs, energy and presentation (Anoushka wears a blue sequin formal dress, Jessica wears a grey tracksuit) but so clearly in-sync, makes it easy for the audience to imagine that, despite the specifics details of her story and situation, this central character could be an ‘everyone’ ourselves, or someone we know. This potential for universality, along with both performers’ strong connection with the audience means that we’re deeply invested in the character, believing and empathising with every choice she makes: flaws, complications, and all.
This play does more than just showing us what grief can do to a person’s brain – it makes us feel its effects in our guts, as our chests tighten, and our throats close. It’s a play about grieving, so crying may be expected, but while we might have left the room with tears dripping from our chins into our coffee cup, Sparks just as effectively highlights the moments of illumination that are vital for healing from the death of a loved one: the unexpected lifelines that keep the bereaved afloat.
Sparks is special because it breathes life into an experience of death. It warms and heals us once it has dipped us in devastation for a moment, and we’re handed tiny bright badges with messages that say “I feel electric” and “I am alive” as we come out feeling the strength of togetherness more overwhelmingly than the dark emptiness of loss.
Follow Sparks on twitter for updates.
Hot Brown Honey
This Australian cabaret super-group has featured heavily on our Edinburgh recommendations lists over the past couple of years as a flawless piece of pure feminist entertainment and education (see our feminist faves blog from last year), but the scale and passion of this year’s production on the biggest stage at The Gilded Balloon would be difficult to top.
Hot Brown Honey is simply the most empowering collection of cabaret acts we’ve ever seen. It’s put together by the most fearless and inspiring of women, who bring together their own unique identities, experiences, and incredible music, dance, circus, burlesque and comedy talents on stage to collectively shut down sexism, racism, colonialism, homophobia (and basically all the world’s worst things), with a cacophony of thunderous rallying-calls in which the audience are repeatedly offered to join.
Having chants like THE REVOLUTION CANNOT HAPPEN WITHOUT CHILDCARE, DON’T TOUCH MY HAIR, DECOLONIZE AND MOISTURIZE, and MAKE NOISE blasting out of one room and onto the streets every day would be a welcome addition to most cities, but at Edinburgh during the Fringe, where some of the world’s most privileged humans gather, and sexism, racism, and misogynoir are clearly still rife, every Hot Brown Honey poster feels like a reminder that you’re not alone in fighting against such things. Even outside of their show times, their frequent presence on the busy streets and bars of Edinburgh – always beautifully visible in their matching honeycomb tracksuits – act like a beacon for their fans and friends to gather around and create spaces filled with radical fierce love. Their spontaneous take-overs of the usually elitist-feeling members bar spaces, with Odette Mercy DJing to a suddenly alive and thriving dance-floor were an energy-boosting lifeline like no other as the intensity of the festival took its toll through the latter half of the month.
Hot Brown Honey will be sorely missed in Edinburgh next year, as they’ve declared this Fringe will be their last, but hope to see them continue touring the UK and the world spreading the powerful buzz of their hive.
Listen to our interview with Lisa Fa’alafi and Yami ‘Rowdy’ Lofvenberg recorded during their Hive City Legacy project at The Roundhouse earlier this year.
Follow Hot Brown Honey on social media for updates.
Koko Brown uses her loop pedal to mix spoken word and song to tell stories from her experience of growing up mixed-race, from a Jamaican and Irish background. At the beginning of White Koko tells us that she wanted to write a play about race, but ended up writing about herself. This is indeed a very personal coming-of-age story, which takes us through moments in her life where she has come to realise things about herself that, deep down, she feels she always knew. It’s a specific personal story, detailing her relationship with her parents, and the traits she has inherited from both of them, as well as her experiences of feeling different from white friends, hearing herself being described as “the black girl”, her feelings about her hair, her discovery of Black Lives Matter. Each of these moments is unique to her, but there is plenty in her story that resonates heavily with the experiences of many other mixed-race people from different backgrounds.
Koko’s presence on the almost-empty and gorgeously-lit stage is so comfortable we feel like we could have been warmly welcomed into her living room. She makes the space so personally and intimately her own, that although she is telling stories of times when she or others have felt uncomfortable, or left out, we always felt at-ease in her audience. The depth and significance of her subject matter is made accessible (though never dumbed-down) by the gentle smile, relaxed shoulders, and natural humour of someone who believes in her own artistry as well as the importance of her story, and is ready and open about sharing it. This laid-back quality and lightness of touch makes her looping and rhyming seem as effortless as breathing, and when her voice soars in polyphonic harmony with herself, it seems to come so naturally to her as a means of expression that we get sucked completely into her world and her story. It’s not until we come out of the show, with her songs still floating in our minds, that we get a chance to gasp at the impressiveness of her craft.
Koko is an associate artist at Ovalhouse and is working on two more plays to sit alongside White in a colour trilogy: Pink, which will be about gender and Grey, about mental health.
Follow Koko on twitter for updates on future work.
Fuck You Pay Me
Fuck You Pay Me is a love-letter to strippers created by Joana Nastari who writes from her own experiences and stars as Bea, a young woman whose shift is interrupted by constant texts and phone calls from her Catholic family, who have just discovered what her job is.
Joana’s writing ripples gently but powerfully with an easy fluidity, as she moves between styles: poetry, comedy, dialogue and direct address. The show’s dazzlingly engrossing immersive design mingles with Joana’s words, voice and physical presence in a way that magically transforms the atmosphere in the room from one scene to the next. We’re in a holy temple steeped in religious iconography dedicated to the hallowed strippers, who we are commanded to revere as Goddesses and Sex Witches. We’re in a club dressing room full of her vibrantly characterised colleagues chatting about their lives, sharing advice, cigarettes and gum. We’re on the dance floor of the strip club with its distinctive mingling of scents and thumping music, populated by a variety of customers including, regulars, awkward posh boys, and businessmen on work nights out, all of whom are brought to life with the kind of characterisation that only comes from observing real life with an expert eye for detail.
Throughout her interactions with customers in the bar, Joana illustrates Bea’s agency in making men believe they have power over her as her alter-ego ‘Holly’ who speaks with the voice of a child, but reassures with the comfort of a mother. When she breaks down this process calmly for us in her sure and steady adults voice, she could not be demonstrating more clearly her upper hand in the situation. She doesn’t deny that this job has downsides like any other – detailing the workaday boredoms and frustrations with bosses, hours, rules, and rude customers, all laughably familiar to anyone who has worked a job which requires emotional as well as physical labour (pretty much any customer service role).
The most powerful part of this show comes with the final scenes, in which we feel the character-layers of Bea and Holly melt away. Joana reads a poetic and heartfelt love-letter, overflowing with deep respect and admiration for strippers: the job they do, and the unity between them. This phenomenal woman who has commanded our undivided attention for a transcendental hour stands unwavering in her light-up platform heels, embodying all her roles at once: daughter, sister, friend, dedicated worker, and glamorous High Priestess, to become an activist holding a series of neon-pink placards that burn the play’s messages into our retina. The signs abandon the poetic imagery employed in the spoken-word sections of the play to tell us in no uncertain terms that STIGMA KILLS. We’re reminded that the phrase MY BODY MY CHOICE applies to everyone, including sex workers, that deadly stigma is the biggest difference between a sex worker’s job and many others, that we all know sex workers who have kept their jobs secret, and that if we respect women’s autonomy, we should make like good feminists and spend £££ in the strip club.
Listen to our podcast interview with Joana recorded in Edinburgh.
Follow FYPMshow on twitter to keep an eye out for post-fringe updates.
Fuck You Pay Me + Special Guests is coming to Rich Mix in London on September 21 and 22.
Thrown by Jodi Gray
This innovative new production used a head-shaped microphone to create an unrivalled level of intimacy between its single performer and audience members. Writer Jodi Gray used real-life memories of older women to inspire an immersive piece of science fiction that’s at once futuristic and nostalgic, set in a world that’s both strange and uncannily familiar. The physical closeness we felt to actor Jill Rutland as she whispered directly into our ears via headphones worked brilliantly to evocatively bring to life this environment where nothing seemed definite except the voice in our ears. Her gentle comforting doctorly tones soothed us into accepting her baffling reality as our own minds seemed to become part of an experiment in her laboratory filled with memories set free from their original contexts to float in and out of minds like ideas.
Facing up to the ephemeral nature of the images we all carry in our minds can be a deeply unsettling experience, but it’s one that Jodi Gray leads us into delicately in Thrown, and we were grateful to spend some time in the pensive state that we found ourselves in after watching this thoughtful and subtly affecting play.
Keep an eye on Jodi Gray’s website for more upcoming work.
Emma Dennis-Edwards is a revelation playing Angelique in her own play about a young woman who struggles against a series of horrible circumstances, finding solace and purpose in taking flower-arranging after her mother is taken to prison, and her peers have brutally betrayed her.
It’s not easy to watch this charismatic girl, filled hopeful positivity and smart confidence be ground down slowly like a petal being crushed. But unlike a petal, Angelique never seems irretrievably broken – she bounces back often, smoothing back the creases and tears in the fabric of her support system with resilience and determination, trying her best to trust everyone around her.
Despite her bright and sunny demeanor Angelique is not perfect in her behaviour, and is no wilting victim. She’s filled with a deeply human and very understandable rage at her male abusers, which she takes out on a caregiver, who she knows is unlikely to fight her back. Heartbreaking in its sudden and brutal childishness, this explosive attack emphasises the fact that Angelique is a very young and vulnerable woman, still on the cusp of childhood, who has already been so badly let down by so many people more powerful than her that she lashes out at the nearest authority figure around.
As we leave the poky flat in which Funeral Flowers was performed in immersive promenade-style, we’re left crossing our fingers that the next chapter in life will be better for this character. We’re also crossing our fingers that the multitude of awards the play has won will give it the opportunity to be staged again beyond the limitations of a student company at the fringe. We would love to see this show return in a space where more people will be able to witness and appreciate Emma’s astonishing performance, and don’t doubt that bigger budget production would better serve this truly excellent piece of writing, acting and directing.
Follow Emma Dennis-Edwards on twitter to keep an eye out for what she does next.
We were happy to stretch the limits of the Bechdel test to include these two super-talented improvisers. Drag King Christian Adore and Queen Eaton Messe are best pals on a mission to create a drag show that’s different every night, and appeals to all the family. When we saw the show it was indeed packed to the rafters with people of a range of ages and genders, all of whom were involved in helping craft an uproariously original one-off show, filled with quick jokes, hilarious physical gags, and some sublime vocal harmonising.
This was a drag show with a unique twist, and an improv show like no other, and we’d recommend it to anyone who has reservations about either, as well as to anyone who’s a big fan of both.
Follow Christian Adore for future performance dates.
Ladykiller is a rarity in many ways: a feminist play in which the leading woman is the perpetrator rather than the victim of violence, a representation of a genuinely complex (to the point of inscrutable) female anti-hero, and a dark comedy that really lives up to its marketing promise of chills alongside every laugh. The laughs in Ladykiller come at the expense of the audience – we laugh at our own preconceptions, our naivety, our (very gendered) assumptions. Hannah McLean (playing the sinisterly-named hotel chambermaid: Her) holds the audience’s expectations and judgements like a world-class puppeteer manipulating a marionette, twisting us one way and the next with a light touch here, and a sudden jerk there, putting us all on the spot as the subjects of our own nervous giggles when we realise we have underestimated or been taken in by Her.
The genius of Ladykiller is in its multiple twists, but the success of it lies in its execution. The pointed eye-contact from Her, often lingering and very unsettling in the enclosed bunker space at Pleasance, puts this character firmly in the driving seat of her story. Madelaine Moore’s concise directing ensures that every audience-member feels Her unnerving gaze more than once. Her eyes dart quickly at the beginning (is this character fearful or excited?) and then, as she settles in, start to drift cool and shark-like from one of us to the next. The effect of this precisely controlled level of audience contact is that despite being the butt of the jokes, and constantly addressed in the room, we didn’t feel publicly exposed by any of Her pointed comments, looks, and calling out of our preconceptions. Instead, we are left stewing thoughtfully in our own discomfort in a way that affects our internal rhythm just enough to make us reconsider the snap judgements we make about the people around us in day-to-day life.
The Thelmas, producers of Ladykiller, are undoubtedly a company who are making a great big feminist mark for themselves. They’re fresh from a successful tour of Coconut, which (although it dealt with a very different subject matter) featured a similarly multi-layered narrative, in which all is not as it first seems, and a fantastically well-developed female characters taking centre stage.
Ladykiller will play at The Pleasance in London Nov 20 – Dec 2.
Follow The Thelmas on social media to keep up-to-date with their work.
Skin A Cat
We loved this show when it premiered in London to critical acclaim and intensely passionate audience responses. A growing legion of fans have seen something of themselves in Isley Lynn’s autobiographical play about her journey to embracing her own body and sexuality. The script is treasured by people who saw it at Vault Festival or The Bunker, and even well-thumbed by those who haven’t had a chance to watch it in performance yet, so it’s safe to say that the Edinburgh run and tour of this show were HOTLY anticipated.
In this production original cast member Lydia Larson returns to play the leading character of Alana, a role that she embodies so naturally that it’s hard to believe it is Isley Lynn’s story and not her own. She’s recently been joined by new cast members Libby Rodliffe and Joe Eyre, who play all of the other characters in Alana’s life: her mother, her best friends, doctors, therapists, and various lovers. Both actors show extraordinary range, in particular Libby Rodliffe’s switches are seamlessly smooth, from the awkward mother who struggles to communicate with her daughter, to the rambunctious university pal full of cringe-worthy comments about her sexual conquests, to the down-to-earth doctor who helps Alana to come to love and understand her own body.
The new cast of Skin A Cat have a bond that seems as deep as the material is frank, bound together by Isley Lynn’s writing and Blythe Stewart’s direction, their energy and intimate connections with each other flourishes despite the vast blue shipping container space that they’ve been placed in for their fringe run. Their ability to adapt to the space in Edinburgh shows that this play and its team are versatile as well as boundlessly talented and committed to telling this important story.
We know Lydia Larson can raise chuckles and tears in equal measures thanks to her sterling work in Skin A Cat. In Finding Fassbender, her first self-penned show (also directed by Skin A Cat’s Blythe Stewart) she reveals the originality of her imagination and the creative panache of her writing as well as her skill for accents and comedy characters. This story takes several surprising (and some terrifically surreal) twists, with laughs that build to a bubbling crescendo, and a central character who wins our affection immediately and our admiration by the end.
Finding Fassbender’s central character Eve is a the kind of woman who is rarely seen on stage, let alone as a protagonist in her own story: she’s quiet and conservative in her habits and expectations, avoids being the centre of attention, and has never looked beyond her small family and community in Wolverhampton, until one day when she hesitantly accepts an offer to transfer to the London branch of the call centre where she works.
Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz she steps off the train into her new world in a cloud of trepidation lined with bright curiosity, facing a series of challenges and meeting some interesting friends along the way, each of whom Larson brings to life with a brilliant array of accents and mannerisms, always returning to her own brightly dulcet Wolves native accent to voice Eve.
As in The Wizard of Oz, the titular character in Finding Fassbender is not the focus of the plot, but a device that drives our heroine on a journey of self-discovery. Unlike The Wizard of Oz, this heroine is in her 30s: this is less of a coming-of-age story and more a coming-of-life story. Eve is no naive teenager discovering her identity, she’s an adult woman who knows what she wants on a day-to-day basis and can look after herself very well, thank you. But, like many of her generation she’s reached her third decade without ever being sure of what direction she wants to take for the rest of her life, and hasn’t yet had the chance to push herself, test her limits and find her true desires.
In a festival crammed with female stories focussed around trauma – featuring a lot of #metoo and mental-health related struggles (many, of course, sharing experiences that are important to see reflected) watching Finding Fassbender is a refreshing relief. We were delighted to settle into our seats to hear a story that, while not without emotional depth and poignancy, is mostly a celebration of a woman’s realisation of her own potential through a unique zig-zaggy path that’s filled to the brim with oddball humour (including some of the best puns we heard outside of the Fringe’s comedy programme) and ultimately affirming positivity.
Follow Lydia Larson on twitter to see what she does next.
Maddie Rice had our stomachs twisted in knots by the end of this play about a teacher whose life becomes intertwined with her students. In Pickle Jar she has written herself the perfect role to show her versatility, subtlety and comic flair as an actor at the same time as exploring vital issues around rape culture, and the consuming feelings of guilt and blame around sexual assault.
Follow Maddie Rice to find out more.
Plunge returned to Edinburgh after the success of their last show, Private View, to take the Fringe by storm with a musical comedy that mingles dazzlingly poppy tunes and colours with with socio-cultural observational comedy and a tongue-in-cheek tendency for self-parody that reminds us of the musical sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Plunge have even made a couple of hilarious music videos that go along with this show if you want to re-live the fun at home).
Clingfilm sees the eternally sequin-clad trio exploring what happens when a Pole, a Turk, and a Brit sit next to each other at the funeral of their old university lecturer. They affectionately tease each other, take it in turns to don a ridiculous wig to play a vicar, sing enormously catchy tunes, and generally occupy the back pew of the church like the coolest kids in school did the back seat of the bus – except when it comes to a Plunge show, everyone in the room is allowed to sit with them.
The depth in this piece comes when each of the women deliver their own internal monologues giving an insight into their own individual identities behind the all-for-one girl-band group dynamic. Tutku, Izabella and Lily play characters in Clingfilm, but ones that share the performers’ backgrounds, accents, and mannerisms so it’s easy to imagine that there are more than a few threads of truth in their characterisation, and it’s obvious that their mutually-supportive relationship as a group, and their cheerfully sibling-esque jibing at each other is based firmly in reality – you can’t fake this kind of bonding. It’s this closeness to their subject matter that gives their monologues real authenticity and keeps us rapt with attention even during these more intimate and less flashy moments of the show.
Plunge give us proper friendship goals, sisterly in everything except their wildly different backgrounds they’re a living demonstration of how Millennials can thrive if we redefine the parameters of family and community to include the friends with whom we share a sense of humour and outlook on life as well as those with whom we share an upbringing, religion or language.
Follow Plunge to stay up-to-date with their work.
It’s True, It’s True, It’s True
We underestimated the extremely physical emotional response that would arise in our bodies while watching Breach Theatre’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True. Reading the description of a “re-staging of an Italian rape trial from 1612”, we wrongly assumed that the distance of several centuries from the story would allow us to critically assess the errors of the court, look at the evidence of rape culture at work, and compare this historical account of a rape trial with the accounts we hear today from people who have gone through the process of reporting rape and sexual assault. We thought this might be a space to interrogate intellectually how the vein of misogyny has been allowed to flow so freely throughout so many societies and across generations when it comes to letting rapists commit and get away with their violence.
If there was an intellectual analysis of rape culture happening in the room, it was not happening inside our heads. We were filled with too many feelings. We felt the hot rage of injustice as Ellice Stevens’ Artemisia Gentileschi was shamed, slandered, and betrayed. We felt the esophagus-closing, tooth-grinding, toe-clenching tension of recognition as the people close to her contradicted her word and questioned whether she had invited the attentions of her painting tutor. Artemisia’s tutor and rapist, Agostino Tassi, was played with such nonchalant brutality and simmering volatility by Sophie Steer that we had to sit on our hands to stop ourselves from throwing our hot drinks at her. She so confidently wore Agostino’s chillingly familiar predatorial expression on her face that it was genuinely a struggle to control our fight or flight instincts and stay sat in the front row like polite audience members.
As the trial went on, and Artemisia was subjected to further violations – stripped, physically probed, and tortured – we felt a ballooning sense of helplessness. Our bodies becoming light and inconsequential, we were being swept into the distance, unable to reach out to Artemisia as she was left on the stage, weighed down in her body which had been so horribly abused.
When Artemisia told us of her return to painting we felt a rush of blood to our heads bring us back into the room with her. We felt hungry as she described in violent graphic detail the tale of Judith beheading Holofernes: the concerted effort that she imagined Judith making to cut through the throat, the sinew and the bones in his neck. When she told us how she painted the scene over and over and became a huge success, we felt a rumbling of renewed energy, like a tingling followed by the beginnings of a small earthquake in all of our muscles.
Finally, we felt a slow-motion burst of catharsis, exploding out of our faces in smiles, tears, and snot as Patti Smith’s Gloria lifted us up to our feet, ready to fight, to join forces with, to protect, and avenge Artemisia’s of the past and future. Rather than having a distancing effect, the examination of this trial from so long ago had a uniting effect on us – bringing us as close as someone can possibly feel to a woman who lived 400 years ago. Because for anyone who has been raped or sexually assaulted, or lives in constant fear and wariness of it, rape is rape, and the real presence of it in our lives means that it can never be an intellectual or historical issue.
It’s True, It’s True, It’s True is running at New Diorama Theatre in London, Oct 16 – Nov 10.
Follow Breach Theatre for updates on this and other productions.
Alissa Anne Juen Yi, the writer and performer of Love Songs, welcomes her audience into her cosy bubble-gum hued space, enveloping us in the intimate and private atmosphere of a young woman’s bedroom before the show has even begun, and establishing the lack of a fourth wall with a gentle sensitivity and genuinely beaming smile.
As we made our way onto the front row, Alissa asked if we’d like to be volunteers to help her tell her story or if we’d rather not, with the most unpressured approach we’ve ever experienced from a performer seeking audience interaction. We watched the show on the day of a relaxed performance so this was further enhanced with sheets handed out detailing plot points where potential triggering subjects, moments of emotional intensity or loud noises, for anyone who needed to prepare themselves to brace or perhaps leave (and if we did choose to leave, Alissa let us know, we would always be welcome to return at any time). These acts of care for her audience were reassuring, and vital for creating the right kind of respectful and well-boundaried dialogue between everyone in the room, as Alissa was about to embark on telling us an incredibly personal and raw story of having her romantic idealism taken advantage of and challenged by an experience of sexual assault.
Telling her story, and helping others to feel less alone in having experiences similar to hers, seems like it is part of Alissa’s own healing process. Although the events of the show seem painfully recent, her sunny presence on stage has us all laughing along with her at her own cringey teenage poetry as though we were having a cosy night in reminiscing with an old friend. It reminds us that an experience like hers, though deeply traumatic, is not at all unusual and shouldn’t something that shame or embarrassment stop us from talking about, and that ensuring safe circumstances to discuss such experiences is a shared responsibility between everyone in the room.
Alissa describes her relationship with her best friend, the strength that she found through bonding over their similarities and differences, how she grew as a person as they grew closer as women, and it feels as though Alissa herself is playing this best-friend role for us in her audience. An example of a relatable survivor who shows us the importance of valuing your own well-being, healing, and learning to love yourself instead of trying to be liked by everyone else.
Alissa’s generosity in sharing her recovery process with her audience seems like a natural act of friendship, as instinctive as opening your door to a pal who needs company and comfort, and we think that for anyone who has anything in common with Alissa: young Millennials and recent graduates, mixed-race and British East-Asian women, and especially anyone who shared a #metoo story, would benefit from spending an hour with her (and having a hug with her at the end of it). If this show returns to the stage soon, go, bring a trusted friend, and make sure you schedule an hour or so of downtime and a joyful playlist of love songs to listen to afterwards.
Listen to our podcast interview with Alissa, recorded in Edinburgh.
Follow Trip Hazards for future production announcements.
Elf Lyons: ChiffChaff
The Queen of Clown and possibly the youngest artist to be justifiably called a “Fringe veteran” is back, with this gloriously self-referential piece of comic brilliance. At the top of the show, Elf gives us a brief lecture-style intro where she breaks down the structure of what she’s about to do in the show. She then makes a quick-change and establishes herself as a ditzy Sally Bowles inspired character, quickly conjuring a silly vacuous stereotype of kooky-artsy-femininity with her short sparkly dress, perky American accent and manic-pixie-dream-girl doe-eyed expression. However, no sooner has she established this character and successfully sparked an ‘aww’ reaction in our brains, than she embarks on an energetic giggle-filled hour of challenging the idea (which we’ve all been fed by society) that as a young woman, an artist, and a dyslexic, topics like economics should be naturally beyond her comprehension.
In ChiffChaff, Elf Lyons becomes an intrepid explorer, overcoming the female-entertainer stereotypes she parodies, and the unconventional way that her brain interprets the world, to learn everything about economics that she can glean from her adorably patient, dryly humorous, brainbox of a father. Elf’s Dad is a real-life economist whose voice we hear answering her many questions via recordings, which she looks up to listen to as though hearing the meaning of life being explained for the hundredth time by a kindly, omniscient, and fairly opinionated God-type.
Through moments of sublimely silly physical comedy – highlights were a mime representing the concept of Quantative Easing, and a never-seen-before method of eating a banana, Elf takes us on a stupendously fun journey. When we booked to see her show, we knew we were in for a chuckle, but could never have anticipated the rate at which the laughs would come. Not until we found ourselves hurtling with aching cheeks towards understanding not just hugely important economic theories, practices, and their significant impact on real-lives, but also her own mind. We got a fascinating and beautifully affirming insight into how Elf approaches understanding and interpreting her father’s area of expertise for herself, throwing society’s expectations of her abilities aside, like one of the many toys that she uses masterfully as props, but ultimately does not need to make us love her.
Make sure you catch Elf Lyons in a town near you whenever you can, and leave your preconceptions at the door, because however high your expectations are, nothing will be able to prepare you for the unique joy of sharing a space with such a magnificently generous and marvellously talented performer.
Check Elf’s website for more chances to see her soon.
The assured stage-presence that we admired in Evelyn Mok’s debut show last year has continued to develop, as she seems to grow ever more comfortable making her audience bubble with laughter at things that we would normally recoil from – and encouraging us to investigate our own instinct to giggle.
In this year’s discomforting analysis of a nasty experience of fetishisation and child grooming, Evelyn wields her jokes like weapons against the patriarchy, racism, and sexual predators. She enables us laugh in the face of such awful things because we see them from her perspective. Her exploration of her experiences, in a space which she absolutely owns, allows us to finds a new funny side to the worst aspects of humanity by seeing them through the lens of her trademark tension-filled humour.
Follow Evelyn Mok to find out when you can see her next.
Apphia Campbell’s tour-de-force portrayal of Black Panther Assata Shakur and college student discovering her legacy returned this year after making a big impact at Fringe 2017. The delicate unfolding of these two women’s powerful stories is a a deeply inspirational tale of activism in two eras peppered throughout with exquisitely performed blues and gospel songs. More than just telling two important stories, Woke is a masterclass in solo performance: Apphia Campbell’s subtle transitions between playing both women is a wonder to behold and an absolute must-see for activists and actors.
Apphia Campbell is currently touring Woke, along with her other critically-acclaimed solo show about Nina Simone: Black Is The Colour Of My Voice. Check her website for dates.
Trojan Horse offers a new perspective on the 2014 news story surrounding allegations of radicalisation taking place in Birmingham schools. Documentary theatre company Lung use verbatim text from interviews with people directly affected by the story alongside dramatised scenes taking place within a school, surrounding streets, homes, and courtrooms during the fallout of the accusations.
The monologues compiled from interviews, courtroom reconstructions, and sensitively staged scenes based on real people’s lives all come together to build a strong case against Michael Gove as the Education Minister who seems to have targeted Muslim families in a grossly transparent and clumsily plotted set-up. This included sensationalist allegations detailed in an anonymous letter which (despite being full of unverified claims) was featured heavily in the media, with politicians fretting in grave tones about the perceived risk that Muslim teachers pose to their students, and that “radicalised” students could pose to the public in turn.
In their production of Trojan Horse at Summerhall, Lung’s set consisted of small school desks and a chalkboard, which, like the entire cast, remained on stage throughout. This familiar furniture, and the actors in their scruffy school uniforms, were an ever-present reminder of the youth of the people most badly affected and stigmatised by the publicity around the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal. As their school was transformed, desks dragged into formation to represent the adult spaces of courtrooms and offices, actors throwing on scarves or jackets to play adult characters, we couldn’t help but keep the children of this story at the forefront of our minds. School children were deemed terrorists-in-training by Islamophobic tabloids. Muslim kids lost their right to be regarded as innocents, their opportunities narrowed as their schools came under scrutiny at crucial points in their education, all while in hideous irony Politicians claimed to be motivated by concern for their welfare.
The use of scene titles in this show, handwritten hastily on a blackboard in chalk, did more than just communicate the setting of each scene; it worked to imbue every chapter of the story with increasing urgency as each one seemed scribbled faster than the last. The titles also emphasised that this play is more than a story; it’s a record of real occurrences, a document of great importance, revealing the personal truths behind the headlines, and the lasting damage done by a politician’s scramble to be seen as “tackling terrorism”.
The writers of Trojan Horse give over a huge chunk of the play’s text to verbatim testimonies of the teachers and governors directly impacted by the allegations, and their perspective shines a light on just how much appalling damage was done to real people’s lives when they became collateral in the UK government’s mission to convince the public that they were clamping down on the causes of terrorism.
However, it was the classroom scenes, presumably staged based on accounts from teachers and students, which grasped at our hearts with the strongest emotional tug. The teenage girls featured in Trojan Horse are still on the cusp of child and adulthood. In their classroom we see them bonding with each other, asking their teachers for advice, deciding what to keep private and what to talk about.
The actors multi-roling throughout the play are good as adults: switching accents and mannerisms as easily as they change their scarves and jackets, but they are astounding when it comes to playing the young girls, and we believe in them with every facet of our being. It’s in the moments between these girls that we’re reminded of the sensitivity of that time of life, the sanctuary which a classroom can provide, and the delicate balance which can tip a kid over from feeling confident and curious and teaching them to feel shame and fear. Watching the experiences of the children in Trojan Horse, and knowing that it’s all based on truth, we’re tipped from feeling outraged to feeling furious. Furious that this happened in 2014, and that the government continues to enforce the Prevent strategy, which puts Muslim children and parents under surveillance, requiring trusted figures like teachers and doctors to report on ‘signs of radicalisation’ (such as an interest in religion) in children as young as nursery age.
Keep an eye on Lung Theatre for announcement of the Autumn tour of Trojan Horse.
Egg: Richard Pictures
We laughed just reading the title of this show, and have loved Egg for a while, so had very high expectations for diaphragm-damaging LOLs during Richard Pictures. Readers, our hopes were well and truly exceeded, and possibly not matched during the rest of the Fringe. From the moment they first clock the audience with a knowing side-eye, to the moment when they appeared in their robes with their faces contorted in bitter rivalry as twin spirit-medium sisters, we always felt we were in the presence of accomplished performers who kept their audience in the palm of their hands with such ease that they could allow themselves to keep playing and occasionally making each other laugh, as well as their audience.
Emily Lloyd-Saini and Anna Long-Borphy, combine to make Egg, and they’re quite simply a match made in comedy heaven. Their rapport fizzes with a healthy balance of competitive comedic instincts and true BFF love. They bounce off each other continuously and with such vibrancy that each sketch felt fresh and surprising, even though we caught them halfway through their run in an undersized (and over-stuffed) sweaty basement, and had seen a couple of their best signature sketches before (the toilet-paper bit literally NEVER gets old).
Their sketches, which range from oh-so-close-to-reality observations to disbelief-suspending weirdness, are deftly woven together with interlinking themes, sharp call-backs, and frequent dollops of ridicule in the direction of audiences and critics who often want to put them in boxes based on gender or race.
We particularly enjoyed the digs at men hitting on women in wildly inappropriate (but horrifyingly plausible) situations. With their chat-up lines as bad as the wigs that Anna and Emily took turns to wear to send them up, we couldn’t help but imagine that real men have used them, and hope that such guys recognise themselves enough to cringe if they ever find themselves in Egg’s audience.
Watching these heroes of feminist wit in action raises a special sort of unifying laughter: it’s the kind of unbridled tears-in-your-eyes hysteria that comes from sharing a round of particularly stupid things-white-guys-said-to-us stories with a room full of best mates, only bigger and louder, because there are 50 of us in on the same joke.
Follow Egg Comedy for future gigs.
The LOL Word
This comedy collective of queer women and non-binary comedians have been holding monthly nights in London for a while now, and have built up a reliable reputation as THE night to go to if you prefer to laugh in an environment where you can giggle freely with the level of blissful abandon that comes from knowing that the next act on the bill won’t be sexist and/or LGBTQphobic.
The LOL Word’s nightly Edinburgh show took place in the most fringest of all the fringe spaces – a living room above a bar without a sign, in which their audience was packed so tightly that the stage space consisted of about 2 feet square and was surrounded on all sides by cross-legged audience members hugging their knees, squeezing into every inch of space, and a few unlucky latecomers turned away at the door. The lack of space in this venue was cold, hard (actually – warm and quite squidgy) evidence that there’s a sizeable audience hungry for jokes by queer women and non-binary people. In case us just asking for it it wasn’t enough.
As well as presenting a reliably rib-tickling selection of performances from their own virtuoso LOL Word original team every night they always feature at least one guest performer on the bill.
On the evening we visited, Chloe Green (one of the LOL Word originals) kicked off the night with a quickfire stream of jokes that bounce pleasingly around a wide field of lefty feminist crowd-winning topics, ranging from queer dating problems to Jeremy Corbyn’s tweets.
Chloe’s jabs at her boss are served with a wry wink that makes us feel like we’re in with the naughty crowd at school, while her dissection of the practical considerations behind a lesbian oil party is delivered in such a disarmingly sweet and down-to-earth tone that we’re sure we’d still have been laughing just as delightedly if our Mums had been sat next to us. Her range is broad and her punchlines land rapidly, but it’s the cheeky glint in her eye that makes us want to see more of her work in future.
The first guest on the bill was one of our firm-favourite stand-ups, the consistently fabulous Sophie Duker. Sophie’s playfully irreverent takes on people’s reactions to her identity as a ‘triple threat minority’ and her curiously probing investigation into the weird world of self-identified posh-people in the audience at The LOL Word was an awesome trailer for both of her Fringe shows: her shared-bill of woke-folk friendly laughs with Lulu Popplewell called DukePop, and her own riotously righteous night of POC comedy, the ingeniously named Wacky Racists, the latter of which she hosts regularly in London and continually fills us with hope for a future of stand-up without the dominance of white guys.
The second guest we saw was Saba Husain whose idea for a Kylie Minogue-inspired musical was tucked so neatly into her weirdly endearing takedown of Malala Yousafzai that we didn’t see the punchlines coming until we were doubled over with laughter.
As if this stellar line-up wasn’t enough to satiate our love of The LOL Word team, we also found time to check out Jodie Mitchell’s set as half of a shared-bill with impressively chameleon-esque character comic Cam Spence. In yet another packed-out room at Banshee Labyrinth we happily revisited a highlight joke of Jodie’s signature imaginative style – a multi-layered fable of agreeably camp talking birds and tampons. We actually laughed harder at this part the second (or maybe even third) time we heard it, with the dizzy anticipation of riding a rollercoaster twice and delighting in the speed with which the story snowballs into strangeness. We also relished the chance she got in this longer set to delve deeper into her dark interpretation of the Teletubbies, and her surreal re-imagining of a working-class childhood spent smeared in potato smileys designed to lure Katie Hopkins.
Jodie’s singular skill for finding the fantastical flipside to everyday observations translated seamlessly between audiences: she won over a midday room of free-fringe punters who presumably weren’t already part of her dedicated LOL Word following, and undoubtedly left them adoring her with almost the same affection as those of us who have already declared ourselves full-on fangirls. We’re looking forward to seeing an hour-long show from this obvious superstar in future, and spending many more joyful nights with all of the LOL Word comics.
Sophie Duker’s Wacky Racists night takes place regularly in London.
Performance duo Mary Higgins and Ell Potter combined their surnames to create HOTTER: a project in which they interviewed cis women and trans people between the ages of 11 and 97 about what gets them hot, in a bid to create a piece of theatre about the moments when our bodies physically react in a way that betrays our innermost feelings, whether that be sexual attraction, embarrassment, or both.
Mary and Ell initially used the interviews to create a verbatim show called HOTTER, which had a run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe – (even) HOTTER is the story behind that show, in which they dig deeper to interrogate their relationships with their own bodies, sexuality, and each other, and unpack their attitudes and responsibility towards the subjects of their interviews.
You don’t need to have seen HOTTER to revel in the unravelling of it in (even) HOTTER, as all is explained through their delightfully unpretentious self-referential conversations with the audience and each other. Watching this show feels like being a fly-on-the-wall, and sometimes even a participant, in the artistic process, and is certainly an interaction that couldn’t take place anywhere except in a theatre.
(even) HOTTER is particularly hard to describe not just because of its extremely physical and sesuous nature, but because it feels more like an organic living thing that will continue to evolve, rather than a set production. It seems like an artwork which will grow rather than be repeated or reproduced, and watching it is a very personal experience that (like sex) will feel different for each different person in the room, but this is how it was for us. On the day we saw it, we discovered a fascinatingly higgledy-piggledy jigsaw of a show, made up of segments of last year’s verbatim performance, and the performers own remarkably frank insights into their own personal journeys. There were some hilariously well-timed performances of the surprising, liberating, and touching interview recordings, which Mary and Ell lipsync in a style that brings to mind the affectionate caricaturing of the mystery interviewees on the animated Creature Comforts series. There are insanely catchy musical interludes which transform snippets of the recordings into choruses for beautifully bizarre and expressive dance routines that we itched to join in with. There are moments of honesty, where the performers open up about their own most personal thoughts and feelings, and step out of their role as artists and storytellers to let us see their humanity laid bare. There was a lot of pink. We loved it, and if you ever have the chance to go, we’d love to hear how it was for you.
Follow Hotter and their producers Transgress, who also produced Kaiya Stone’s excellent and massively relatable one-woman comedy lecture on growing up with dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD: Everything’s Going To Be KO.
Anna Crilly and Margaret Cabourn-Smith deliver knockout performances full of wit, venom and extraordinary pathos in this heartrending play about a comedy double-act who we meet on the anniversary of their final performance together.
Despite the comic potential of the setting of The Half (and the obvious comedy talents of its stars, which we glimpse as they recall their characters’ careers), this play is not short on gut-wrenching moments of tragedy. What starts as a light bout of sparring from two long-time frenemies quickly becomes unexpectedly dark, going to places filled with violence and heartbreak that we never anticipated.
Writer Danielle Ward and director Anna MacGowen’s combined skills and experience are indomitable, skewering the adversaries faced by women in comedy with the precision of seasoned hunters. Their work combines with the skills of their two actors in The Half to create a densely-woven three-dimensional portrait of a relationship. We see the the bitter-sweet friction build between the characters as they work hard to build and maintain their careers and their friendship in the face of an industry rife with sexism.
The tragedy of this play comes from the fact that both women cannot survive unscathed in this world that throws ever-larger roadblocks in their way. The former natural allies seem destined from the beginning of the play to be pitted against each other in a race against the ebbing tides of prejudice against them. Not because all women are meant to be Baby Jane-esque rivals at each other’s throats ‘til the end, but because of a combination of personal and socio-political circumstances which contribute to the layers of resentment building up between them over the course of decades. The portrayal of the effects of rampant sexism, ageism, single parent stigma, trauma, addiction and poor mental health on these women’s relationship is as multi-layered and as complex as the relationship itself. This presents a challenging number of crucial plot points for a fringe audience to absorb, and requires a high level of emotional engagement from both the actors and audience, but The Half’s two leads have the chops to carry us through it, and we’re with them throughout as they lift and dip us masterfully through the highs and lows of two interlocked lifetimes in the space of an hour.
Follow The Half to hear about any further performances.
Elinor Coleman appears before the audience in her own autobiographical play as a captivating powerhouse of a performer in leopard-print leggings, using her bold presence and rich singing voice to fiercely reclaim her role as a young single mother from anyone who would use it to demonise or stereotype her. She presents motherhood as one aspect of her identity: inextricable from the woman she is today, a choice which has shaped her, but never something that wholly defines her. She’s a mother at the same time as being an artist, a daughter, a sister, a millennial, and a proud Brummie.
In Baby Daddy, Elinor reflects on the admirably defiant (if naive) confidence of her younger self, who became pregnant at the age of 20, when she was sharing a house and between jobs, and decided to have a baby “without a single doubt”. As she takes us in painful, hilarious, and sometimes wincingly-intimate detail through the pregnancy, birth, and bringing up her daughter, we see the last glimmers of naivety drop off her in sweat and tears as she struggles with the day-to-day practicalities of parenting alone, in the midst of the nasty negative reactions from those around her. She’s challenged constantly by the stigma that follows her into every pre- and post-natal appointment. There are moments when she’s sneered at, patronised, and isolated, during which our hearts swell with empathy, but not pity, as she never loses her self-belief and that pure gut-instinct confidence that having her child was the best choice.
The stigma against young single mothers, and the pressurised quest for a father-figure that it inspires, result in memorable moments of comedic gold, and the resulting conclusion that family is what you make it all comes together to provide an excellent narrative framework to shape Elinor’s story into a satisfying and meticulously-crafted piece of theatre, but ultimately, the heart of this story – the element that make it truly unforgettable is the unshakeable bond between a mother and daughter and their ability to give each other strength throughout everything.
Elinor’s love for her daughter drives Baby Daddy like an irresistible tide, pulling her from one chapter to the next on a journey towards valuing herself as the complete family-unit that her daughter deserves. We feel this love palpably in the room as we listen to recordings of her daughter asking questions, commenting, and giggling, throughout the show – her small voice integrated not just into scenes where she’s present, but throughout the show, alongside the beautifully-composed ever-present musical score that’s played live on stage using multiple musical instruments. At the climax of the play, this bright and lively little girl’s voice takes centre stage as mother and daughter perform a touching duet that had the whole room so choked we were ready to reach out and hug the nearest human to us, whether we knew them or not.
We may have cried during plenty of shows this Fringe and blamed the intensity of the Edinburgh experience a few times, but Elinor Coleman well and truly earned our tears as well as our admiration for being fearless in her honesty, and astonishing in her frank moments of vulnerability. She’s candid about the fact that she’s a human trying her best, not a superwoman, and we’re all the more in awe of her for it.
Follow Baby Daddy on twitter for more tour dates.
This new play, about teenagers trapped in an undefined small town somewhere in the countryside, fits perfectly in Paine’s Plough’s Roundabout space. It’s themes are of cycles and isolation, and we visualise our fellow audience-members (just visible opposite us in the dark) as the world outside the town, with the circle of the stage’s edge penning the characters in like the ring-road that surrounds their hometown.
The three-strong cast of Island Town all give compelling, convincing, and connected performances. In the Roundabout’s empty set and prop-free space, with Simon Longman’s staccato dialogue and Stef O’Driscoll’s distinctively punchy direction, this remarkable trio of actors pull the focus tightly around the three young friends’ close bond with each other. There are moments towards the beginning where they make each other (and the audience) laugh so much we think this could be an Inbetweeners-esque coming-of-age comedy, but that’s not how these kids lives pan out. Their small world is punctuated by moments of powerful slow-motion movement foreshadowing a glimpse of serious violence. Scenes of familiar teenage teasing are laced with a haunting feeling of foreboding as well as a sense of time passing at disconcertingly variable speeds.
Katherine Pearce is particularly magnetic to watch as Kate, the protagonist whose anger at the world and her situation builds into self-loathing as she ages rapidly before us. Kate’s exuberant teenage humour, initially laced with a wry cynicism that couldn’t quite hide the glimmer of hope behind her eyes, gradually gave way to a different kind of wildness: the kind of uncontrollable frustration-filled rage that is rarely seen in female characters on stage.
Even as the impending darkness chasing these teenagers closed in, and the disaster looming over the play from the beginning began to reveal itself, we couldn’t help but feel heartened to see a young woman exploring such a range and depth of feelings in a play that centres her experience and allows the audience to see the world through her eyes.
Sticks and Stones
The same cast we loved in Island Town are in rep, featuring also in Sticks and Stones by Vinay Patel, where they play roles that could hardly be more different from the isolated young trio of characters in Island Town. Here they are powerful adults, presumably wielding significant influence and racing to climb career ladders in a fast-paced office, where Katherine Pearce once again shines as a busy working parent whose hopes for promotion are scuppered when a bad-taste joke she made in a meeting is called-out publicly by a colleague.
Vinay Patel’s super-intelligent and exquisitely satirical script is prefaced with the note that he has “veered away from specifying concrete character attributes such as race, class or gender”, not because such attributes aren’t important, but to give anyone staging it the freedom to play with instability. This company plays with it like an expert cat hunting many birds in one go, pinning down several different characters, and aspects of society and culture all at once, with jokes fluttering at every turn like feathers settling around a sense of discomfort, squirming but always kept alive under gentle paws with sharp claws. Stef O’Driscoll’s direction (with movement direction from Jennifer Jackson and Simon Carrol-Jones) uses the space to its fullest, with the cast leaping from one pose to the next as they jump into cheesy dance poses to send-up their hyper competitive everyone-for-themselves but everyone-must-conform working environment, and later to literalise the song-and-dance they make about using euphemisms and acronyms to signal their own virtue.
The euphemisms and buzzwords, thrown around the stage with such gusto and increasing rapidity, are the heart of what makes this play a work of genius – it’s a searing parody of the lengths people will go to avoid saying (or even inferring) certain words, whilst simultaneously avoiding thinking about the actual weight, meaning and history behind words that makes them taboo in the first place. At the same time, the fact that no one on stage ever specifies the word that gets the central character into hot water in Sticks and Stones stops the audience from fixating on the word itself in our minds, and allows us to observe the mechanisms involved in language censorship and call-out culture. It’s a device which exposes the kind of behaviour that even the ‘wokest’ of us are guilty of. It’s easy and common for those who think we can keep up with which words fall in and out of social acceptability to play the do-gooders and PC police, loudly highlighting potential offence caused by others, pointing out their mistakes to get out of ever addressing the roots and depths of our own prejudices, whatever they may be.
This wonderful cast of Island Town and Sticks and Stones also appeared in Paine’s Plough’s How To Spot An Alien, which comes highly recommended for kids of all ages by our trusted junior Bechdel ambassador (daughter of Baby Daddy’s Elinor Coleman) who we trusted when she told us it was loads of fun, and easily passed the Bechdel test.
Island Town, Sticks and Stones and How To Spot An Alien are touring in Paine’s Plough’s Roundabout, with upcoming dates in Salford, Kendal, Margate, Poole, Lincoln, Stoke-On-Trent, and Luton.
The Providence of Neighbouring Bodies
Billed as “a dark comedy about beavers, beers, balconies, and America in chaos” The Providence of Neighbouring Bodies, by American playwright Jean Ann Douglass, is a keenly-observed piece of socio-political commentary dressed as a kooky-odd-couple story of female friendship. We’re immediately drawn into the inner worlds of two strangers who live next door to each other, easily connecting with them as they sit on their adjacent balconies through the fantastically detailed and focussed performances of Lori Elizabeth Parquet and Amy Staats, and the offbeat charm of the writing.
The two women’s inner-commentary monologues are both poetic and appealingly sensual, giving us a vivid insight into not just their thoughts and feelings, but their physical conditions as they wake, breathe in the morning air, drink a coffee, arrange some flowers and then finally share a beer and a laugh.
These characters both live alone in the same neighbourhood, are similar ages, and equally fascinating to get to know, though their natural rhythms, occupying thoughts, and responses to each other are comically different, and the play could easily have taken the direction of continuing to explore their mismatched but gradually warming relationship, riding on the laughs of hearing their conflicting internal interpretations of events.
However, not quite halfway into the play we’re introduced to a third character, who not only disrupts the quietly blossoming connection between the neighbours, but also the audience’s expectations of a reasonably naturalistic light comedy play. The new arrival is a beaver played by Dinah Berkley whose furry coat, twitchy nose, and long leather tail give her just the right amount of weirdness that we’re aware she’s a little bit different from the characters we’ve just got to know, but whose bright smile and friendly affability make it hard to comprehend when she’s regarded with a slight air of wariness, suspicion and even disdain by her new human friends.
Like Sticks and Stones, The Providence of Neighbouring Bodies deals with notions of prejudice and exclusion by using an element of absurdism to distance the characters from the real world, and succeeds in making their world seem just strange enough to shine a light on the roots and inner-workings behind their very recognisable behaviour without making their odd situation and familiar reactions seem like a clumsy analogy for one or another specific kind of intolerance or discrimination.
If we gave Bechdel test related awards, The Providence of Neighbouring Bodies would get one for depicting (without fanfare) two women past their mid-20s, both living alone and expressing their inner hopes, doubts, and independent takes on life, without one hint of a desire for male companionship or approval. This whole production was high in quality (special shout-out for the neatest design we saw on a Fringe stage this year), the characters were complex and well developed, and the unique plot gave us plenty of food for thought, so we’d love more UK audiences to have an opportunity to see this show, and hope it has plans for a run outside of Edinburgh.
Follow production company Dutch Kills for news.
Six gives a voice to a group of very different women from different countries and spanning several decades, united by the one thing they have in common: the King of England (the infamous Henry VIII) who treated them appallingly badly. In this show the six wives reunite to tell their own Herstory, using belting ballads, thumping beats, and rippling guitar riffs to demonstrate how much more they are than just wives.
Each woman takes her turn to occupy centre stage with a solo song (always with the others on backing duties with impeccable harmonies and snappy dance routines), under the premise of figuring out which of them should be the lead vocalist. We don’t want to spoil the feminist message which provides the climax of this play, but safe to say the songs aren’t ALL about the King.
Part musical theatre, part history lesson, but mostly pop concert, this show has the atmosphere of an internationally-touring diva-supergroup on a stadium stage. It’s the perfect show to take the GCSE-aged feminist in your life to see songs inspired by the greatest singers of recent years (with clear nods to Beyonce, Rihanna and Adele amongst others) and buy the merch afterwards. But as big, exciting and important as the teen-girl audience is, we can’t help but feel that this vivacious re-writing of history should be seen and heard by anyone who was taught that “divorced, beheaded, died” rhyme at school. It’s a fun hour, but also a valuable one spent reassessing what we’ve learned about the past, who we learned it from, and what kinds of stories we should keep on passing down to future generations.
Following it’s Edinburgh run, Six is transferring to The Arts Theatre in the West End.
Len Blanco: Firing Blancs
Hey girl, if you’ve ever doubted whether that the dude wearing the slogan t-shirt made in less-than-ethical conditions really IS what a feminist looks like, then this show’s for you. Len Blanco is a drag king with a story to tell, but before he does it, he makes us feel all of the teenage thrills of watching our favourite pop star take to the stage.
Len’s undeniably sexy dance moves in his opening number are guaranteed to make any heteros who may have happened upon this show question their sexuality. But this is not a straight-up gender-blurring tribute act, nor is it a one-directional take on the life of a teen-pop pin-up gone bad. It’s an enlightening look into a later chapter in the life of a former womaniser embarking on a hilariously shambolic effort to get woke, in which Len Blanco’s clever creator Helen White challenges the length, depth, and girth of the commitment of Good Feminist Guys to the cause.
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In this gem of a new play by Lily Bevan two very different women on either side of the Atlantic bond over their shared love of animals and disappointment at humans. Bevan herself plays cheery Californian zookeeper Bonnie, sharing the stage with Lorna Beckett playing no-nonsense Carol, who works in a Yorkshire wildlife centre looking after bats. Both women are utterly devoted to their jobs, and despite their surface differences in accent, expression and tone, they find an understanding between them that runs deeper and holds faster than any other relationship either of them have ever had.
Zoo is a comedy, with characters and locations that are ripe for humour, but its impact as a play relies on the fact that we laugh with (rather than at) the two leads. Luckily Bonnie and Carol are written and played with such skill that, although they appear on the surface like they could be two sidekick-types in a sitcom with their distinctive accents, dungarees and unique eccentricities, they’re very much the joint-protagonists in this tale, each with their own history and emotional complexity to pull the audience into their world. It’s marvellous thing to have these two not only be the centre of their own compelling plot, but to have the strength of their friendship drive much of the action, as well as their commitment to their jobs.
This is a play where nothing is ever as simple or easy as it seems. The show begins with an atmosphere so lighthearted it’s almost cute, but it has a darkness that rises gradually and subtly, like a very slow flood, until we find we’re much more deeply invested in these two characters than we would have imagined when they made us chuckle so easily in the first few scenes. It’s testament to the true talent of Lily Bevan and Loran Beckett that we went to see this show on a whim because we liked the sound of flamingos in a urinal, and were so taken in by their performances that we have not stopped thinking about these characters and their friendship since.
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Dangerous Giant Animals
Christina Murdock’s play about living with a disabled sibling is based on her own relationship with her sister. On a bare stage, painted to depict her sister’s favourite animals in haunting cartoon silhouette, Christina takes us through the years of a family holding together by the skin of their teeth, and as she portrays each family member in turn we see etched on her face the pain that stretches them to their limits, as well as the deep love and commitment that binds them together.
Dangerous Giant Animals is a powerful exploration of the depth of sisterly love, and the violence of human nature, and represents a point-of-view that we haven’t seen represented on stage before with forthright honesty and immense tenderness.
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If you’re looking for an education on the issues behind the headlines about Venezuela’s currently unfolding political crisis, you won’t get it here. Miss Venezuela is a queer clown carnival which offers more of an experience than an education – though that’s not to say that this show’s not highly political.
Andrea Spisto’s clown seems like she wants to please, trying various ways to get into character as beauty queen in an effort to be crowned Miss Venezuela, but she does not have it in her to conform. She knows deep down that she is already a beauty queen without changing her Latinx body, hair, or style: she doesn’t need to alter her appearance to value herself. It’s the pageant industry’s problem that they aren’t up-to-speed, and their loss is clear when she frees herself from the oppressively heavy sequin dress that burdens her throughout her hilariously frustrating repeated pageant-walk across the stage. She frolics freely in her rainbow swimsuit once she has rid herself of the weight of expectation, introducing us with pure joy to her brilliant body which is hairy, and short, which doesn’t have to be confined by constructs of femininity and masculinity to be sexy as hell.
From the moment we enter the room, Andrea exudes a kind of conspiratorial glee, and she maintains a glinting eye-contact and flashes each of us knowing smile throughout the show that keeps us all on the same page. We feel every moment of emotion on her rollercoaster of highs and lows as she goes through moments of feeling accepted and rejected. She gets every person in the room with an open heart and mind eagerly on board to skewer white-centric cis-het-normative capitalistic beauty standards with her, and excited to discover the work of her celebrity role-models whose photographs decorate her opulent home-painted set alongside glittering matriarchal Catholic iconography.
The best reason to see Andrea perform is that, as well as bearing witness to her own personal journey, you’re likely to absorb some of her contagious confidence and self-love. During her carnival we feel able to shake ourselves free for a moment from our own culturally ingrained preconceptions about what makes a beauty queen, and join her to rejoice in the true gorgeousness of dancing all together, comfortable in our own skin and sexuality. Miss Venezuela makes us feel like we’re part of an exclusive private party, where everyone is invited, as long as they’re ready to celebrate beauty with her in her wonderfully inclusive and stirringly positive way.
Follow Andrea Spisto to find out what she does next.
Fringe Wives Club: Glittery Clittery
This sequin-drenched hour from Fringe Wives Club was a full-throttle roller coaster of cabaret mastery by three women who clearly know their onions when it comes to vulva facts as well as knowing their way around an ultra-catchy pop song. Their passion was relentless, their dancing feet were restless, and they had time and energy to delve into a myriad of feminist issues – from the deeply serious points around consent, to the hilariously relatable problem of pocketless clothing.
Tessa Waters reigned supreme as the central figure holding this motley trio together, keeping the chaos just the right side of organised, she provided boundless laughs but always enforced clearly consensual boundaries when it came to audience participation. Rowena Hutson got our award from being the most adorable of all the personified vulvas we’ve ever seen on stage (believe me, we’ve seen a few) in the priceless ‘Lagoon of Mystery’ game show. Victoria Falconer provided the show’s highlight for us with her theremin solo, in which she flicked her tongue expertly to tease a tune from the electronic instrument in an act which hovered majestically in the middle of the sexy/hilarious venn diagram.
Victoria’s theremin work in Glittery Clittery was enough to entice us to also visit her solo show, Oxymoron, at the promise of more instrumental action. We were not disappointed – Oxymoron was a charmingly intimate cabaret centred around her personal experiences, including growing up with a Thai mother in a very white Australian town and discovering her bisexuality. Her use of instruments (including the theremin) as metaphors was ingenious, and her acid wit was merciless as she ripped into other people’s ignorant responses to her race and sexuality. Our fave moments included an impromptu lesson on playing the saw, and an astounding eel-preparation mime-sequence – but apparently the show changes every time she performs it, because like every true cabaret great, she’s truly performing for the moment and exquisitely responsive to the audience in the room.
This is gig theatre at its finest: Wildcard Theatre had us sucked into the world of Electrolyte from the (gloriously loud) opening bars of this dazzlingly intense concert/play/experience. In fact, we were so absorbed by the story, and so convinced by the cast, that we had to stop on our way out of the auditorium at the end to check whether the protagonist, Jessie, was real or fictional (she was in deed a character, played by the superb and appropriately electric Olivia Sweeney). We genuinely had to watch her actor’s showreel to remind ourselves that this was in fact a play, and not a piece of autobiographical performance art.
Despite the fun-time connotations of the gig setting, and the heart-meltingly enchanting songs from Maimuna Memon as Allie Touch, this play touches on some serious and upsetting issues, exploring grief and mental illness, including psychosis, but it manages to do so in a way which doesn’t glamorise, stigmatise, sanitise or sentimentalise the experiences of the character going through a breakdown. Rather than dramatising what Jessie’s going through from the point-of-view of an outsider, Electrolyte encourages the audience to view the world through her eyes by giving her a strong narrative voice. We’re alarmed and disturbed when she is, at just the right level to gain an insight into her experience without tipping into fearing or pitying her. Electrolyte is sensitive in its depictions of Jessie’s symptoms as only part of her story and character, and humanising in its perspective, with some of the best acting and musicianship we’ve ever witnessed. Keep your eyes peeled for more from this extraordinary company.
To find out about future performances and productions follow Wildcard Theatre.
ThisEgg’s Dressed made headlines in the run-up to Fringe this year as one of many shows addressing a #metoo story, as it features the true account of one of the company being raped. However, what makes Dressed stand out, and the key to its watchability, is that the rape as an action is not at the heart of this piece. It is not the climax or the crux of the story.
Instead, the attack in question acts as a catalyst for a tale of friendship and healing. Lydia’s story, as told by herself and her closest school friends, is not centred around the trauma itself, but about how she finds her own way to process it and regain her strength and autonomy. This isn’t to say that this show couldn’t potentially contain triggers for some, but it’s very different to many shows we’ve ever seen which feature a rape or sexual assault, in that this company don’t build up to the rape as a narrative climax. They present the rape as an established fact near the opening of the show, and then almost exclusively describe the rebuilding of Lydia’s life, rather than the circumstances immediately before or during the attack.
The way Lydia rebuilds is first by making her own clothes, which we see her do often on stage, and second by making this show, which we see her do with the help of her best friends. Lydia’s friends are a group of women who met at a dance class when they were ten, and grew up together, each taking different career paths but remaining united in their creative roles (they are a singer, a dancer and a theatre-maker) as well as their long-lasting friendship. Throughout Dressed, we see them physically care for and protect each other, lift each other up, and make each other laugh in a way that only friends with years of history can. In a world still plagued with violence and injustice, and at a time when we’re seeing a lot of close examination of the nature of violence and injustice on stage, Dressed is a welcome respite thanks to ThisEgg’s focus on kindness, self-soothing, the reclamation of self-image, and immense healing power of togetherness.