In a Nutshell
A programme of new writing showing the breadth of feminist theatre, but the success of individual pieces still lie on the imagination and ability of individual playwrights.
Theatre company Whoop ‘n’ Wail launches a new platform for new writing with a difference. All plays presented in the evening much past the Bechdel Test: where there must be two female characters present who must speak about something that isn’t men. Out of all the submissions, six fifteen minute pieces are presented as part of an evening of feminist theatre from both female and male playwrights.
The Final Frontier, by Sam Hall
Dir: John Mitton
This piece starts off nicely inverting the stereotypical women’s role in TV, and not quite in the way you’d think. Unfortunately, as fun as the piece tries to be, it does come across as a little silly, meaning that a more sinister sub-plot/twists fail to convince and feel out of place, as well as distract from the moments of keen intelligence that are there. It’s reveals are a bit unwieldy and over the top meaning it doesn’t quite satisfy or do any justice to the more serious issues being explored behind the farce. None the less, there’s some interesting ideas here, despite it running away with itself.
Three Women In A Music Box, by Dan Horrigan
Dir: Alice Bonifacio
This is a play of fascinating imagination and heartfelt intelligence. Three women live together inside a music box, with their sole purpose being to answer a teenage girl’s questions. Their keeper is going on a date with a boy, and she needs answers: quick!
Although this is the one play of the evening that only just(?) passes the Bechdel Test (with the characters spending most of their time talking of the teenager girl’s male love interest), Horrigan’s short is joyous and playful. As well as pawing through the anxieties of teenage courtship whilst carefully treading through issues of adolescent sexuality with deft analysis, Horrigan writes with a marvellous theatrical ingenuity as well as a narrative one. The characters interact directly with the audience (even, at one point, to make salacious accusations upon my character), making them feel wonderfully part of the small world that the characters’ inhabit. Furthermore, actors Lizzie Bourne, Thea Beyleveld, and Dani Moseley not only relish in this break of the fourth wall, but nimbly bounce their character’s personalities off each other with a marvellous joie de vivre.
The result a warm and charming play that’s pricks the cerebellum as well as comforts the cockles.
Cause for Alarm, by Deborah Klayman
Dir: Emily Bush
Klayman’s tale of a woman going back to a past home and bumping into a lover she’d tried to forget had promise but fell short of being something truly bold. There’s a dark enigma that runs deep in the piece that slowly rises to the surface. However, unfortunately it has to push through some pretty standard melodrama. Some of the shocking twists feel a little too soap-opera rather than something deep and daring. Perhaps a bit more innovative subtly in the direction might have helped a little, rather than resorting to constant outbursts of shouting from characters. It’s a shame, because at the play’s climax, central character Effie turns her personality into something quite chilling and dangerous, capturing a sense of originality and caprice that could have been done with elsewhere.
Furthermore, one of the performers in the piece was far too timid and unconvincing, especially alongside the veteran confidence of their colleagues, making the piece lose any attempt at dramatic traction and impact it might have otherwise.
On The Horizon, by Adam Hughes
Dir: Sarah Davies
The fame machine is brutal: tell us something we don’t know! Unfortuantely, Hughes’ contribution to the evening really doesn’t. A starlet on the cusp of “making it” must decide between her career or her personal morality. Domineered by her manipulative manager, she not only has to make this choice, but simultaneously has her own prejudices challenged. Then play ends up being as shallow and empty as the industry it’s trying to send up. The entire “you-think-you-know-me-but-you-don’t” plot point that the piece hinges on just churns out something incredibly predictable. Flat and obvious, the play really drags.
However, Amanda Croft and Amy Flight’s performances are excellent. Croft in wonderfully devious as the manager and Flight is charmingly ditzy as her ward. Both bounce and clash their personalities in the piece with incredibly slick perception. Croft is also especially unnerving in moments of uncomfortable sexual tension: an unsavoury predator if there ever was one. However, despite these strong performances, they don’t manage to lift the play beyond dull mediocrity.
Dust, by Sarah Davies
Dir: Norman Murray
Davies has created something that is not only imaginative, but really unique and engrossing. A still-life retrospectively capturing the crumbling relationship between an estranged daughter and mother, Davies applies a dexterous and expert theatrical treatment to this vision. Her main character returns to her deceased mother’s house to sort out her possessions, sifting through an anthology of greeting cards that she kept, getting a glimpse of a heartbreaking decline of her mother’s health and senses that she never knew about.
Davies flanks her main character with two almost spectral actors. But rather than signifying anything supernatural, their purpose is to become the voices of inner monologues, other characters on the end of a phone line, or be the charismatic signatories of the salutations that get sorted through. Because of this treatment, even though not much really happens in the play, there’s a pace and a variety that holds you from one sincere greeting card to the next. Davies also adds in little comic reliefs that break up the pace, but are throwaway, playful, and natural enough that they never distract from the incredibly tender emotions they explore.
The only criticisms is that it feels like it forms the part of a much larger work, and I, for one, am really keen to see it materialise as such. Also, the eventual ending the piece went for was a little bemusing: too sudden and unexplained, adding to the sense that this is an excerpt rather than something stand-alone. But this is absolutely forgiveable as the overall result is a piece that is achingly touching as it is subtly emotive.
My Bloody Launderette, by Ali Kemp and Deborah Klayman
Dir: Paul Kevin-Taylor
Kemp and Klayman end the evening with a marvellous romp! Prince Leia runs a run-down laundrette, where Shakespeare’s Juliet and the Mona Lisa pop in to do their laundry. What transpires is a ping-pong game of wits and intelligence exploring women’s lot in film, art, and theatre respectively, probing notions of beauty, empowerment, and patriarchal ownership in these genres.
There are fantastic little one liners and some wonderful little quips not just in the writing, but visually in things such as Leia’s ear-muffs and her e-cigarette being used as a make-shift lightsaber. It proves that director Paul Kevin-Taylor is as in on the joke as Kemp and Klayman are, making sure that no funny goes unturned in this feisty little farce. But for all the laughs, it’s a surprisingly provocative look at women in the arts. As the characters bemoan their lot and envy the others’, as much as the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, the audience find themselves challenging what they thought they knew or finding a perspective on the issues that they hadn’t considered before.
The only criticism is that the humour is entirely referential. As iconic as Princess Leia, the Mona Lisa, and Juliet are, there are still people out there that have either not read or seen these works of art. Therefore the jokes might not just go over their heads, but perhaps also the points that are trying to be made. But it’s a brave punt on a vehicle for executing some absolutely inspired comic moments and thoughtful dissection.
Whoop ‘n’ Wail Represents… goes to show that feminist theatre doesn’t at all need to be swaddled in the gaudy and offensive stereotypes that can surround feminism. It’s also is an interesting look at the fallibility of the Bechdel Test as some plays meet it’s criteria far better than others, although all are mindfully female. What’s great is that nothing feels contrived or finds it an awkward instruction to work around. Yet the success of the pieces, and therefore the evening, is less about a playwright’s feminist persuasions, but the individual creativity and ability of the playwright. But despite a hit and miss launch, the few pieces that absolutely shine marks this an exciting new writing showcase to keep a close eye on.
Whoop ‘n’ Wail Represents took place at the Waterloo East Theatre, London, SE1 8TH, on 17 and 24 November 2014. For more information about the company, visit www.whoopnwail.com.