Edinburgh Fringe #FeministFaves 2018

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.

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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!

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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.

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Sparks

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.

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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.

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WHITE

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.

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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.

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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.

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Funeral Flowers

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.

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Dragprov Revue

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.

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Ladykiller

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.

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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.

Skin A Cat will be touring in the Autumn. Follow Rive Productions and keep your eyes out for dates and locations soon.

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Finding Fassbender

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.

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Pickle Jar

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.

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Clingfilm

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.

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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.

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Love Songs

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.

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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.