Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 19th January, 2012
The famous first act – a forty minute dinner party for women from various periods and cultures throughout history is a challenge for performers and director alike. It can also be difficult for the audience but, thankfully, not on this occasion.
The women just turn up at the restaurant, apparently knowing or knowing of each other, despite being dead, As the courses come and go, we learn more about each woman as they strive to make themselves heard above the hubbub of conversation. The naturalistic device of characters talking over each other, with lines overlapping to the extent that neither line is heard, gives this fantasy a touch of reality. Much of the humour comes from Victoria Gee as the Medieval Dul Gret (from a Brueghel painting) speaking in gruff monosyllables and stashing cutlery and flatware in her basket. I also liked Esther Ruth Elliott as Pope Joan, played as though Nichola McAuliffe was a retired headmistress.
The women all had tough lives and men are to blame. Pope Joan had to conceal her gender all her life so that she could fulfil her passion to study and achieve her rise to the top. Lady Nijo (Alix Dunmore) was a courtesan to a Japanese emperor and then a Buddhist nun, suffered beatings and separation from her children because it was the done thing, accepting the pain because the practice was ‘normal’. The scene is a crash course in the history of the status of women throughout the years and around the world but it is also a fractured view of women in society today. (Whoops – I forgot; there is no society but a building society). The women each try to dominate the conversation – even at the end of their evening, when the brandies are taking effect, they seem isolated and separate in their revelry. There is some sense of seeking common ground (“Have we all got dead lovers?” asks the Pope) but there is no sisterhood among them. Marlene’s conspicuous consumerism is counterpointed by the long-suffering and silent subservience of their waitress.
The rest of the play is different. We see Marlene (Caroline Catz strutting around in big hair and shoulder pads like Viv Windsor off of Emmerdale) at work in the employment agency she runs, and the other women who work there. Ostensibly, they like to help people but their true motivation seems to be the money. Nothing inherently wrong with that – what better motivation to work? – but these women are not very pleasant and are there to make a point. The slick agency is contrasted with the home life of Marlene’s sister and simple-minded daughter Angie (Victoria Gee again). The sister, Joyce (Kirsten Hazel) resents Angie while the girl idolises her Auntie Marlene. She runs away to London to impose herself on Marlene’s reluctant hospitality. The final scene, a year earlier, reveals that Marlene is Angie’s real mother but Joyce brought up the child as her own, effectively trapping herself at home. For all Marlene’s assertions that she is a successful, independent woman, able to live it up and do what she likes, it is all too clear that without the exploitation of her sister, the trampling of someone else’s ambitions, Marlene would have nothing.
Directed by Max Stafford-Clark, this is an efficient and entertaining production. Its patchiness comes from the unevenness of the script and a few dodgy accents from some of the cast. The stand-out performance comes from Victoria Gee who presents three very different, credible characterisations – the strongest presence on stage whenever she is on.
It is hard to believe Caryl Churchill’s most famous play is thirty years old. Now a staple of Theatre Studies courses, it was, in 1982, a temperature-reading of the age. How lovely it would be to use hindsight and laugh at high-flying Marlene’s optimism for Monetarism and our first woman prime minister. Instead a chill ran through me. Those characters from 1982 were reaching out to the audience of today and showing us that things haven’t changed. Themes touched on by the play are still pertinent. The spectre of Thatcher still hangs over the country, permeating everything the evil government is trying to achieve. It rather spoiled my evening.