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Camden Fringe 2015: Goddess (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

goddess Oh, I do like to be besides the seaside. Photograph: Courtesy of Glenn Orton.
goddess

Oh, I don’t like to be besides Rhyll’s seaside. Photograph: Courtesy of Glenn Orton.

In A Nutshell

A detailed and subtle look at what makes a modern woman through an exuberantly rumbustious character, Goddess gorges itself on too much.

Overview

After valuing on the Antiques Road Show an ancient statue that she found in the charity shop she works in, Holiday is rocketed to fame and fortune. But in an interview with a top journalist, Holiday’s world is not as rosy as she makes out, and her lot is as dim and dirty as the North Wales seaside town she calls home.

Writing

Acclaimed writer Serena Haywood turns their attention to exploring what it means to be a modern woman. Using Holiday, a more than rough around the edges character, the scenario of being interviewed about their find of the century gives Goddess a nice little situation for Holiday to open up and explore their life and lot. But whilst the idea is sound and there’s plenty of detailed observations here, unfortunately Goddess tries to cover too much.

Themes covered include the woman as sexual, the woman as sexualised, female body image, socio-economic decline, the woman as daughter, the woman as mother, and several others. Slipping these in surreptitiously, these issues crop up incredibly subtly and organically, making the catalogue of issues in Goddess feel far from episodic or overtly political. Everything comes out naturally and quietly through Holiday’s musings, quietly picking out potent points as it goes along.

But Goddess feels too broad and there’s not much to really get stuck into with regard to exploring what Haywood is trying to get across in Goddess. Much like Holiday as a character, Goddess rambles and doesn’t keep focus long enough on most of what gets talked about. Whilst Goddess is billed as a reinterpretation of the “goddess” myth, you feel unsure what Goddess is really trying as there’s simply too much that never settles on anything particular. When Goddess does stay on a subject long enough to have an impact, specifically the widening riff between mother and daughter in the revelation of Holiday’s poverty against her mother’s indulgences, a beautifully human and complex portrait of family and womanhood really starts to appear. It’s a shame that Goddess takes its meandering time to get to this, but when it reaches here, its really something quite deep and compelling. However, the trouble is the impact of this apex wouldn’t nearly be as effective or as moving if it wasn’t for the wittering that came before it, posing a character and structural conundrum.

Despite this, Goddess is yet another example of Haywood’s supreme character writing. Haywood really gets beneath the skin of their long-suffering ladette in all her cheeky unapologetic glory. Holiday is an unflappable, fun, and absolutely believable character. Bolstering this super-realism is how Haywood writes the intellectual and emotional responses of Holiday to the grungy backstory Goddess has in store for her. Holiday brims with very human and often flawed responses to what they’ve been put through, be it with pride, irony, spite, or veiled face. You don’t get more excellent character writing than this, wondering whether Haywood themselves spent a long spell in Rhyll or has lived through similar experiences, achieving a perfect chime with the issues of place and personal predicament. Although Goddess’ structure might fall short, Holiday is an unforgettable and deeply empathetic character, like so many of Haywood’s other creations, and is a joy to see realised.

Direction & Production

Jessica Radcliffe directs Goddess with a great deal of thought. Although the Tristan Bates Theatre space is ample for this play, Radcliffe is far from compelled to use it all, keeping Holiday’s frantic gesticulations and enthusiastic fidgeting to the space around the chair, coffee table, and Gillian Radcliffe’s bespoke alluring statue. Yet there are times when Holiday dashes around the room, either to fart out of a door, summon the security guard, or cling to the back wall as she gets possessed by the essence of the goddess.  Radcliffe’s direction is one that knows that just because there is space it doesn’t always have to be used, and keeping the focus on a mostly contained area really gives the audience an opportunity to get to know Holiday without being distracted by the spatial generosity. Enchancing Radcliffe’s direction is some lovely bits of lighting by Jennifer Rose, blending in some seamless and tactile changes in mood, and creating a dreamlike softness that compliments the moments of soundscape in Goddess.

Performance

Wendy Albiston as Holiday is a rolly-polly gust of unfettered fun. Albiston really embraces Holiday’s coarse but kind veneer, blending crass with an air of ridiculous wannabe class. Even in Holiday’s most vulnerable moments in Goddess, Albiston exudes a real sense of pride and ambition that, whilst feckless, has an aching sense genuine aspiration that breaks your heart even when she flings out faux pas like no-ones business. It’s really difficult to imagine anyone else stepping up to take over Holiday’s part, as Albiston so effortlessly portrays her with such whip-crack energy, making a complex connection with the character. As you could reasonably believe that they could have indeed been Holiday in a past life, Abliston is therefore perfectly cast doing indisputable justice to Haywood’s writing.

Verdict

An amazing piece of character writing, Goddess leaves a genuine impression, albeit a speckled one.

Goddess plays at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 22 August 2015, as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book, visit http://tristanbatestheatre.co.uk.