Short dramas on ghosts, politics, death and hacktivism

25 Feb

Female Intuition

Blue Elephant, 23.2.17

 

Female Intuition is a showcase of four very different pieces by female writers and directors, performed by the talented ‘Original Impact’ company.

 

The first, Knock Knock is the first twenty minutes of a longer piece. As a result it is noticeably all setup and no resolution, but nonetheless the setup has great potential. The play looks at the overlapping territory between theatre and haunting – it is set at a rehearsal for a new play in a creaky fringe theatre, where a series of strange interruptions hint that the theatre’s ghosts might not all be metaphorical. The play under rehearsal appears to be based on a true story about a woman who developed psychosis after giving birth – a psychosis she experienced as a kind of haunted house horror story. Writer Megan Jenkins navigates the various kinds of haunting on display here – impersonating a dead woman, listening to her recorded voice, imagining and repeating her gestures. With so much spookiness in the subject matter, Jenkins and director Katie Turner keep the style naturalistic, and find some humour – the slightly tetchy relationships between the two actors and the director, the director’s imperious manner, the gentle satirising of the female actor’s preparation and her pious description of someone else’s success – all of these are very believable, and they make a realistic baseline so that the inexplicable knocking and lighting changes come across as genuinely spooky rather than kitschy.

 

The second play, Project Britain, imagines that the voting age has been reduced to 16 and that mandatory politics classes have been introduced to the school curriculum as a result. It’s hard to tell whether the play thinks this is a good idea – it doesn’t seem like a bad one, to me – certainly, however, the class doesn’t seem to go particularly well. The bulk of the play is set in Mr Millstock’s classroom as he broaches the tricky matter of teaching politics. He’s very pompous, almost a stock stage-teacher, but not necessarily an unrealistic character. Scattered across the play – marked by quick lighting changes and sudden changes in the actors’ demeanours – are scenes in which Millstock transforms into a stammering politician and his students become ferocious members of the press, aiming accusatory microphones at him. Some of the students also have little breakout monologues to explain their own politics (or rather, the politics they inherit from their parents) in a bit more detail – one talks wistfully of her absentee father, another details his mother’s strategy for responding to racism, another explains why he agrees with his dad about immigrants in an unusually sympathetic portrait of a young Ukipper.  There’s also a posh kid who jumps in to answer all the teacher’s questions, and a female liberal objecting fiercely to everyone else’s views. The concept here is pretty sound, but the trouble with the execution is that there isn’t enough time for the characters to be much more than stereotypes; as such, the play reproduces rather than challenging established ideas about the categories people fall into. I’m also a little baffled by its ambivalent attitude to current affairs: according to Mr Millstock, the current UK Prime Minister in this play is Labour’s “Claire Fletcher” – but if we’re allowed to indulge in a pleasant alternative universe as far as home politics are concerned, then why, why do we still have to talk about bloody Trump?

 

Big Girls Don’t Cry is the third piece: a sensitive portrait of two sisters dealing with the death of their neglectful alcoholic mother. The characters are really well drawn, as is their struggle – particularly that of older sister, Claire, on whom the responsibility seems to fall – to satisfy society’s expectations of mourning behaviour while negotiating their own and others’ conflicted feelings about the dead woman.  We gradually learn more about the relationship between the sisters as the play goes on – the revelation that Claire effectively raised Kate throws light on their dynamic earlier in the play. Though writer Laura Burrell finds some humour in the characters’ flouting of social rules and norms by speaking ill of the dead and opening champagne before a funeral, the mood is generally pretty sombre. Elicia Murphy’s turn as their shallow cousin Lou adds some needed humour – although I felt an opportunity was missed to see the sisters bonding over Lou’s absurdities. The last few minutes of the play are a mixed success – Claire’s breakdown is moving, and the final shock of spilling the ashes on the floor is a really nice way to round up the play’s themes, but the monologue addressed to an urn is just a little too stagey, it punctures the understated mood of the rest of the play.

 

Finally, Hold Still, This Won’t Hurt is the most hard-hitting of the four, but its brilliant build-up of suspense in the first half doesn’t really have a clear direction to go in and it lacks a strong ending. The central character is teenage Kira, who is, unbeknown to her lovely, indulgent mother, involved in hacktivist groups on the Internet and conducting illegal surveillance on the Detention Centre where her stepdad works. The relationship between mother and daughter was believable and touching, and the subsequent shock revelations lead to a perfectly paced dinner scene. The trouble is that once the payoff arrives, the play loses direction a bit; in the last five minutes all three characters’ motivations become confused. And the ending slips into melodrama: Kira puts on a sparkly skull mask (why? her antagonist already knows her identity, and it won’t make her less conspicuous if the police are out looking for a cybercriminal) and storms out with the parting shot ‘I hope one day you can forgive me!’ It’s a shame, because the setup is really beautifully done and the concept has great potential, but it slips into unintended comedy at the end.

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