Equal Writes - Theatre Review

Last December, the Guardian released research on the current role of women in theatre. The shocking discovery that there is still a persistent 2:1 male-to-female ratio inspired Mandy Fenton to create Equal Writes. The event was an opportunity to ‘excavate’ and give platform to the forgotten, ignored and under-represented voices of women. Receiving a staggering 800 submissions in just under a month, Mandy and her team chose twelve diverse and inspiring pieces to showcase at this event.

Housed in the rather intimate Tristan Bates Theatre, the evening began suitably with “Once Upon a Time...” with Yamina Bakiri’s Little Red Riding Headscarf, ably performed by Shamaya Blake. Blake’s portrayal of several characters of various ages (and species) was cleverly achieved and well performed. Director Amanda Castro created a superbly physical piece, helping capture the quick-change characters simply by altering Blake’s positioning on her chair. The ‘Big Bad Wolf’ of this story is the simpering and hesitant ‘Everyman’. He delicately stutters, “Why don’t you wear a hood like all the other girls?” Although, of course, once he realises Little Red Riding Headscarf is just like the other little girls, he gobbles her up all the same...

Medicine by David Spencer is a tender tale of a modern (and unconventional) Mother/Daughter relationship coloured by illness, performed with energy by Sandy Foster and Frieda Thiel. Although sometimes hard to follow due to rushed dialogue, the piece concludes with a sweet moment of reconciliation and understanding played out well by Foster and Thiel, and there are genuine moments of humour littered throughout.

Downfall by Sumerah Srivastava is a coming of age story that unfolds in a matter of minutes and a poignant look at love and friendship in a world of arranged marriage. Ambur Kahn and Rajneet Sidhu honestly and thoughtfully brought their characters to life, quickly going from two carefree girls dancing madly to Rihanna to two young women separated by their differing opinions on love. Kahn and Sidhu performed with eloquence and Srivastava’s writing shows us that our young people are just as emotionally engaged as any adult, even if they don’t always show it.

Kaite O’Reilly’s Walkie Talkies was one of the stand-out pieces of the night, delivered expertly by the brilliant Mandy Colleran. A cleverly constructed monologue, O’Reilly weaves the tale of a disabled woman’s quest for self-sufficiency and ownership over her own body. Commenting on her care home, Colleran snarls, “They like the tame crips here. Me, I’m feral.” The piece also tackles society’s attitudes to disabled sexuality, and O’Reilly’s work is a delightful smack in the face, addressing the need for society to start viewing disabled individuals as individuals.

Jennifer Thorne and Sophie Russell delicately portrayed a grandmother and granddaughter relationship in Susan Harrison’s Soft. Harrison’s writing poetically captures a feeling of sad nostalgia and tongue-in-cheek humour throughout the piece. Thorne and Russell beautifully demonstrate both the funny side and ultimate sadness of dementia, and Thorne in particular is outstanding, with a performance that shines through her eyes. Soft is a humorous reminder that our elderly were young once too, and had their own lives just as detailed and complicated as ours.

The first half ends on a blazing high, with Flags by Andrew Curtis and La Barbe by Sarah Rutherford, both directed by Hannah Price. Flags brings us into the world of two spritely and cheeky elderly ladies, who end up arm wrestling, arguing and reminiscing together. Actors Yvonne Brewster and Joanna Wake are an absolute riot of colour and energy, and they clearly have a lot of fun with Curtis’ script. These ‘Naughty Nana’s’ riff together so well, and their touching reconciliation at the close of the piece is beautiful. This is the sort of writing that should be on our television screens as well as our stages.

In La Barbe, Charlotte Randle appears on stage with a rather gorgeous and luxurious beard. She deftly handles Rutherford’s script, as she details her journey from awkward female boardroom presence to confident and assured beard-wearer. Randle is an absolute delight and La Barbe is a fantastic piece of writing. You know a piece is exciting when as an actor you think, “I want that in my monologue store!” A look at how women are treated in offices and boardrooms up and down the country, it made me wish I had a beautiful beard of my own.

The Cat Call by Dominic Walker provides the only piece of the evening where we hear a man’s voice – and what a familiar voice it is. Damson Idris is perfect as the “Oi, Sexy!” cat-calling rude boy, all kissing teeth and abrasive attitude. Walker’s piece is a sharp look at the casual misogyny women face every day, and it is even more refreshing that the voice of the woman calling out her ‘admirer’ is written by a man. However, whilst Alicia Charles ripostes are perfectly timed, I do wonder just how many women do stand up to cat-calls. This piece is a pertinent reminder that so many women suffer cat-calls every day, but at least here our cat-caller Idris seems to learn his lesson.

Following the humour of The Cat Call, exceptional writer Alice Jolly gives us her heart-breaking piece, A Blue Bonnet For Samuel. Stunningly performed by the talented Catherine Harvey, we hear the story of a devastated mother whose baby died from a hospital error. As she fiddles with a tiny blue baby hat throughout, her jolly demeanour sinks into sadness. Harvey’s pure presence absolutely stunned the audience into silence and director Poppy Corbett deserves great praise for this sensitive exploration into hospital failure and ignorance.

Finally by A C Smith was a powerful piece of writing, but perhaps could have benefited from a different staging. Although this movement heavy piece was an interesting change of pace for the evening and provided a metaphor for the astounding number of women raped around the world each year, the heartbreaking power of Smith’s words perhaps did not reach us as strongly as they might have if staged in a simpler manner.

In Ms Bond by Emma Wilson we finally get what we’ve all been waiting for – a female Bond. Actor Sara Houghton slinks about the stage, with just the right edge of Daniel Craig’s deadly sexuality and more than a nod to Connery’s nonchalance. Wilson’s script plays up delightfully to a female Bond in a ‘man’s world’ as Houghton purrs how easy her job is (and how easy men are to seduce.) A little slice of sexy fun, and a great homage to Bond we end the piece to the eponymous theme as Houghton strides out, off to another mission for Her Majesty. (Just waiting for a female Doctor Who now then... Ms Wilson, if you could oblige?)

In the last slice of performance, Piece of Cake by Paul Macauley, we see three generations of women fighting against the limited view of women we see represented in advertising. Played for laughs by the brilliant Donna Combe, Anita Wright and Millie Reeves, we also get a fantastic look into the neat boxes advertising guru Reeves would like to fit her family into – de-sexualising her mother and cosy-ing up her Twitter-obsessed Grandma. A very fun way to finish the evening of performance, we are left wondering if advertising will ever be able to break the habits of a lifetime and represent some actual real women rather than “Real Women”.

Overall, the evening was a firm success and the fact a large majority of the audience stayed for the post-show discussion shows how important and needed this event was. For more detail on the fascinating discussion, please read Equity Vice President, Jean Roger’s brilliant report at http://www.equity.org.uk/news-and-events/equity-news/womens-stories-not-....

Women and men are crying out for change, and Mandy Fenton has helped us take the first steps to start reclaiming space on our stages for the voices and stories of a diverse range of women. I sincerely hope there will be more Equal Writes events in the future, as I think the idea could run and run. Huge congratulations to all involved.

© Carly Halse
Reviewed on 11th March, 2013

Equal Writes
Tristan Bates Theatre
Equal Writes was performed on 11th March, 2013
2 hours 30 minutes with interval – plus after show discussion

Little Red Riding Headscarf by Yamina Bakiri
Director: Amanda Castro
Cast: Shamaya Blake

Medicine by David Spencer
Director: Erica Miller
Cast: Sandy Foster & Frieda Thiel

Downfall by Sumerah Srivastava
Director: Amanda Castro
Cast: Ambur Khan & Rajneet Sidhu

Walkie Talkies by Kaite O’Reilly
Director: Amanda Castro
Cast: Mandy Colleran

Soft by Susan Harrison
Director: Imogen Butler Cole
Cast: Jennifer Thorne & Sophie Russell

Flags by Andrew Curtis
Director: Hannah Price
Cast: Yvonne Brewster & Joanna Wake

La Barbe by Sarah Rutherford
Director: Hannah Price
Cast: Charlotte Randle

The Cat Call by Dominic Walker
Director: Poppy Corbett
Cast: Alicia Charles & Damson Idris

A Blue Bonnet For Samuel by Alice Jolly
Director: Poppy Corbett
Cast: Catherine Harvey

Finally by AC Smith
Director: Erica Miller
Cast: Ivana Basic, Jiin Jang, Golda John & Nadia Shash

Ms Bond by Emma Wilson
Director: Amanda Castro
Cast: Sara Houghton

Piece Of Cake by Paul Macauley
Director: Ola Ince
Cast: Donna Combe, Anita Wright & Millie Reeves

Creative Director: Mandy Fenton
Associate Administrator: Ine Van Riet
Stage Manager: Sarah Pujol
Assistant Stage Manager: Hannah Sharkey
Technician: Simeon Miller

Please see the website for further details.

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