Herstory, Theatre N16 - Review

Spearheaded by Nastazja Somers, Theatre N16’s literary manager has been the driving force behind the recent Herstory feminist new writing event, which was spread out over two evenings.

Setting the tone for the first evening, Dannie-Lu Carr delivered a moving personal (yet also universally applicable) monologue explaining why she is a feminist, which summed up a lot of what's wrong with the world today. Carr also directed the next segment of the evening – a short play entitled Canon's Warriors by Hannah Greenstreet. Featuring Lily Barr (Fleur) and Heather Hartnett (Punch), the short play revolved around a female couple, who also happen to be 'feminist puppeteers'. Living in a beach hut in Thanet, Kent, the puppeteers' struggle with lethargy and the cold reminded me of Withnail & I, finding it hard to keep sanity and health together. The second-half had amusing examples of their revisionist feminist stories using 'cute' animal puppets, but the arrival of Matthew Goodall's character from the council – who as well as notifying the couple of their eviction, knew Fleur well back at university – brought some tension and intrigue into the proceedings...

Written by Jonathan Skinner and directed by Monty Leigh, Buff was as a very funny but poignant play that highlighted the pressures of body image standards from society. Performed by Bryony Cole and Daniel Wye, the 'roles' were reversed with Wye's character being the one to take umbrage with The Sun newspaper's page 3 pictures of athletic men. This triggers further dissatisfaction with his own overall appearance, leaving it to Cole's character to assauge his self-doubts and intimidation by men with 'six packs'...

The idea of body dysmorphia was further explored in the third segment of the evening: Ballast, which was created and performed by Jill Bradley. Similar in spirit to Lady Junk Theatre's Butter which examined women's ambivalent relationship with dieting, Bradley's wordless play which involved food and movement explored similar themes. While not explicitly spelling things out, actions such as the self-gagging of the mouth while preparing food  and the balancing on one foot on scales to appear lighter, all hint at the never-ending hostility between the mind and sustenance.

Following the interval, the first act (Rebecca, Arabna & Connie by Ayesha Casely-Hayford) consisted of three monologues that were all performed by the same actor, with each related to the other.  Beginning with 'Connie' – a Ghanaian woman married to a Caucasian European – Connie recalls how living in a house with no women has in some ways made her lonely. While Connie's husband gets to spend the day with her sons, she has no daughter to share her secrets and the traditional homemaking skills that everyone from her village knows. The monologue dovetails into her relationship with her husband and his behaviour which he finds 'amusing' but she finds disrespectful. It is at this point that their respective cultures seems leagues apart...

The second monologue revolved about a young girl working in a woman's house - before and after school. As the 'child' relates her tale of woe and the hours she has to do, it sounds like she is at the premises as slave labour. However Casely-Hayford cleverly reverses this point of view by next playing the owner of the home that the child is working at, and it is revealed that the child is there at her parents' behest to earn a bit of extra money for her poor family...

A step closer to home, but deceptively deep, Two was written by Allie Costa, directed by Nastazja Somers, and performed by Emily Sitch and Joshua Webb. The segment started as a  paean to music and good times. However as things settled down, the true purpose of this piece is revealed – both female amd male survivors of rape relating their respective experiences... except that as we hear them talking, we find there is very little difference between them – the violation is identical....

Written and performed by Lauren Gauge, the evening's final performance The Unmarried is simply put a Spoken Word/theatrical event that is truly original. Artists like Kate Tempest have broken down the barriers for young urban performers within the Spoken Word arena and Gauge in the same spirit has given a voice to those who experiences haven't been shared ...until now.

Directed by Rosemary Maltezos, Gauge's ode to the 1990s (with 'beatboxing' and singing accompaniment from Nate and Kate of Battersea Art Centre's beatbox academy) offered a bittersweet dose of nostalgia, as the issues of today are refracted through the prism of the past.

While the piece itself is fictitious, it does tap into the common experiences of young people on the cusp of adulthood. After years of going and out and drinking, the stages of 'settling down' creep up on you: living with someone, having a baby  and *gasp* that 'real' watershed momement – making the criteria to be put on the council's housing list.

The crux of the piece, however, involves Gauge's visit to her grandmother, the 'matriarch' of the family, to get her advice and perspective on wanting more out of life or settling for what one has.

As innovative as it is, The Unmarried is a very mature work that has a lot to say about 21st century Britain and its young people, who on a daily basis wrestle with making do for today versus aspirations for the future. I'll look forward to seeing how Gauge evolves as theatre-maker, as work of this calibre at such a relatively young age shows great promise.

© Michael Davis 2016

Herstory ran at Theatre N16 on 6th and 7th August 2016.


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