On Monday I headed to the Waterloo East Theatre to check out the first Represents… showcase by Whoop ‘n’ Wail, as previewed on this blog a couple of weeks ago. Organised by Deborah Klayman and Ali Kemp, co-founders of Whoop ‘n’ Wail Theatre Company, this is a new writing showcase with a difference: all works must pass the Bechdel test. While it was reassuring to see that none of the new short plays felt contrived or limited because of this rule, I’d dispute whether all of them passed it; however, while as with most showcases there were some hits and some misses, overall this is was a fresh and dynamic night of theatre.
There was great breadth across the showcase, with topics ranging from sci-fi movie castings, to teenaged dating dilemmas, to historical figures; yet if I had to pick a favourite, it would be the final piece of the evening, My Bloody Laundrette. Written by Klayman and Kemp themselves, it works around an ingenious concept: three historical and fictional figures – the Mona Lisa, Shakespeare’s Juliet and an ageing Princess Leia – meet in Leia’s launderette (Juliet is trying to wash out the bloodstain from her fatal, suicidal blow, while Mona has been vandalised by another crazed fan) and bemoan their various situations. While reflecting lightly on the characterisation of women, there is plenty of comedy here, both physical (Leia’s earmuffs representing that infamous hairstyle) and wordy (a nifty joke about Paris amongst the highlights). Perhaps understandably, as it was written in 2012, it feels more complete and polished than other pieces, presumably having had time for development and refinement: it certainly ensures the evening ends on a high.
Elsewhere, there is plenty of good work alongside some weaker moments. Adam Hughes’s On The Horizon contains some great dialogue and plays with prevalent themes of fame and the sacrifices made in order to achieve it, and certainly fulfilled the Bechdel test criteria, although the performances from Amanda Croft and Amy Flight felt rather stilted. I was eagerly waiting for them to relax into the roles, but in such a short work there was little time for this: if this were achieved, they would create more depth in Hughes’s script. I had similar doubts about Sam Hall’s The Final Frontier, which had the ever-tricky job of kicking off the night. While it was hugely refreshing to see a science fiction-inspired work primarily featuring women (take note, film writers!), the plot’s twist unfortunately felt awkward, as if the theme of mental illness had been squeezed into a story and script that couldn’t quite support it. All in all it was a slightly odd offering, with a couple of hammy performances, although Victoria Denard impressed as she negotiated the pitfalls of the script. Dust by Sarah Davies similarly featured a strong central actress, as Suzie Preece carried the show with a combination of dry wit and poignancy as a young woman discovering her late mother’s fabrications about her life. Despite the script taking a sharp turn for the frankly bizarre in the closing moments, this was a gem of the showcase, exploring a tricky mother-daughter relationship with gentle humour in a novel way.
All the preceding works managed to pass the Bechdel test with flying colours and with no hint that a huge effort had to be made to do so. Yet the remaining two pieces made me return to the rules of the showcase with doubt: did Three Women in a Music Box and Cause for Alarm really pass? I loved Dan Horrigon’s charming concept in the former, in which three imaginary figures gave advice (or not) to a teenage girl through her music box, and the cast of three (Lizzie Bourne, Thea Beyleveld and Dani Moseley) gave strong performances throughout. Yet the whole focus of the piece was the unnamed girl’s first date: what she should wear, how she should behave, what she should say – in short, all focused on a boy, and surely the antithesis of the Bechdel test? It’s a shame that such a delightful concept fell into clichés of theme, especially when there was so much potential material to be explored.
Similarly, the rather histrionic drama of Deborah Klayman’s Cause for Alarm all seemed to focus on the return of Anya’s (Ali Kemp) former fiancé, who apparently initiated and now re-awoke her mental fragility. Aside from shoe-horning too many elements into one 15-minute piece, giving little space to breathe, it was a shame that more was not built up between Anya and her friend and colleague Effie (a rather weak Anto Cossu) and thereby fully living up to the aspirations of the night.
Despite these shortcomings, it was still an intriguing night of theatre that showcased some great acting and writing talent. The majority of works achieved their aims while still asking interesting questions and giving us humour; moreover, it was fantastic to see a full house for new writing, with a supportive and fun atmosphere (helped along with some 90s pop hits in between pieces, I’m happy to say – yes, I still recognised that Billie Piper song…). I’m looking forward to seeing more showcases from this team that gives a platform both to new writers and gender issues within theatre.