The following reviews are listed in order, just scroll down to find them –
An Ice Thing to Say / Savage Beauty / Waiting for Hamlet / Rebel Boob / Di and Viv and Rose
An Ice Thing to Say
‘An Ice Thing to Say’ is billed as – ‘surviving the Anthropocene’.
The production starts with the computer screen completely black, and a woman’s voice telling us that she can’t see anything outside her room, but she can hear people clapping in the street “so it must be Thursday”. Clapping for the NHS during Covid-19 It’s on a screen because we’re at home watching a performance taking place under lockdown conditions, with live theatre and public mingling severely restricted. We’re currently in hiding from a pandemic that has probably been caused by unsafe food practices, and in the longer term we are being battered by increasingly violent weather events that signify fossil-fuel driven climate change. The world’s oceans are cluttered up with non-biodegradable plastic, and we are also causing the biggest mass extinction of animal and plant species since the demise of the dinosaurs fifty million years ago.
Welcome to the Anthropocene.
So how did we get here? Vertebra Theatre have tried to answer that question with a stunning online production which mixes video footage, live-action physical theatre, masks and incredibly evocative lighting and sound, with music and sound effects by Gregory Emfietzis. It’s the tale of how we are destroying our environment – for this reviewer it brought to mind ‘Paradise Lost’.
Great art – and I think that this production ranks as great art – gets its strength by telling complicated truths simply. We don’t need masses of detail if we can be given a powerful image that sticks in the mind. In this production they have used large blocks of ice: really large blocks, oblong in shape and a few feet long – big enough to sit on but (just) light enough to push around and stand up on one end. Transparent. Immaculate. There are four of them, sitting on a sheet of heavy polythene about three metres square.
At the opening, we follow a hand-held video camera tracking a woman (Stella Evangelia) as she eases open the door of what looks like an abandoned factory workspace. It’s light inside, daylight spilling in through windows, and the concrete floor is quite bare apart from the blocks of ice. She approaches them tentatively, and proceeds to run her hands, face and limbs across the smooth surfaces of the pristine forms. It’s beautifully shot, close-up images of her touching, examining. Sometimes we see her slightly distorted image through the limpid mass of the ice itself.
The ice blocks are melting very slowly, of course, and the meltwater lubricates their movement as she slides them around on the plastic to rearrange them, to gauge the weight, the heft of what she’s found. It made me think of how very young children learn about the world around them – the physical contact of touching, pushing, licking and rubbing teaching us essential things long before the onset of language.
And here’s the thing – the simple image of clear, transparent blocks of ice led me to imagine the world as it must have appeared to our distant ancestors: mysterious, impenetrable and governed by rules that we didn’t understand. William Blake was able ‘to see a world in a grain of sand’. I was seeing one in a block of ice.
And then there are two. The woman we’ve followed is dressed in the kind of black top and shorts that you’d wear to the gym, but suddenly there’s another figure, rather androgynous and dressed more formally in black trousers and a shirt, who appears seemingly out of nowhere. They don’t speak; but they interact, touching and moving, both with each other and with the ice blocks. The second figure (Mayra Stergiou) occasionally lifts up the first woman and holds her, but she seems dispassionate, intent on avoiding closer or more intimate contact, and after a while she leaves. She steps off the plastic sheet into the much larger workspace around them and that’s the last we see of her; and the first woman seems unable to leave her sheet and follow.
Was the second woman … God? Maybe that’s how it feels when ‘God is dead’. Nietzsche felt that humanity had destroyed the need for a deity following the rise of scientific rationality. The mystery of the natural world had been superseded by knowledge, which has given us great power, but also made the Universe a very lonely place. There’s a sequence of small video segments on a split screen, looking like a Zoom meeting – but to me it spoke of individual people alone in their rooms, dancing, or exercising, or maybe just using repetitive movement to keep their minds off the great questions of existence. (Piedad Albarracin Seiquer featured in these, along with Stergiou and Evangelia). There are voice-overs too, apparently taken from patients’ therapy sessions – “Empty days” … “You can see the sun but your feet are only allowed to touch the shade” … “I was angry at it, I just wanted to cry and scream”.
The plight of polar bears on shrinking ice floes is often used as a symbol of the climate emergency, and Vertebra Theatre have produced a poignant bear, just by the wearing of a bear mask as the actor sits on an ice block. A simple mask in white, the basic shape, without features, without eyes, reminiscent of the Neolithic Greek Cycladic statues. There’s a keening, haunting singing sound (by Myrto Loulaki) overlaying this sequence. In addition to its position on the melting ice, this sad bear was initially bound up in festoons of waste plastic cling-film – two such powerful symbols of our despoilation of our environment.
Empty days. One of the voice-overs asks if we are able to handle silence, and states that “We don’t know where we started, or where it will end”. In ‘The Tin Drum’, one of Günter Grass’s characters looked at the WW2 concrete blockhouses of the Atlantic Wall and defined the Twentieth Century as ‘ Barbaric. Mystical. Bored.’ They were solid blocks, too, and the concrete must have been as pristine as the ice blocks when they were first cast. When you’re bored, and feel lost, you cover over those feelings by frenetic activity and consumption. And sometimes violence. That’s what humanity has done, using up the planet’s resources, and trashing what we can’t use.
It’s all that activity and consumption that takes up the latter part of ‘An Ice Thing to Say’. There’s a terrifying segment where the woman is eating a large bunch of grapes off the top of one of the ice blocks. Not just eating – that’s too neutral – she’s gorging on them, cramming them into her mouth and mashing them against her lips so that the red juice runs down her chin and neck. More. And more. It had got dark in the space, and the light had turned red on her, her eyes wide with the frenzy of consumption, and it felt like I was watching the Cyclops devouring Odysseus’ crewmen in the cave.
Industrialisation. Some time has passed, the daylight has completely faded outside, and the ice blocks have melted enough that they are now sitting in shallow pools of water on the plastic sheet. The lighting turns redder, hinting at Dark Satanic Mills (William Blake again), and we hear the sound of railway hooters, and wagons clanking and screeching over the tracks, as the woman attacks the blocks with increasingly powerful tools. She’d started by scribing circles onto the shiny surfaces, sitting hunched forward on one block while holding her compasses like in Blake’s drawing of Isaac Newton; but later she’s using a small chisel, then a bigger one and a hammer, and eventually a full-size workman’s pick, to chip and gouge and smash away at the ice. Frantic. Frenzied. At one point she has a blade in each hand, teeth clenched as she hammers at the block. As the person in therapy had said – “I was angry at it, I just wanted to cry and scream”
Soon the smooth shiny surfaces are gone, to be replaced by jagged crevasses in the blocks, and chips and larger chunks are split off, to lie in the pools of melted ice. The pace of demolition speeds up, and at the end there are just a collection of broken shards, melting even faster now that they are much smaller. At the end, the woman is lying surrounded by the wreckage of broken ice, lit by red light, clutching at a few remaining pieces and apparently trying to push them together. An unforgettable image, a terrifying symbol of where we find ourselves; bringing to mind those lines from ‘The Waste Land’ –
‘ These fragments I have shored against my ruins ‘
So ‘An Ice Thing to Say’ is a dark and disturbing warning – It’s not easy to watch, but it’s also an incredibly beautiful piece of theatre. Stella Evangelia’s fluid movements as she swings around the ice blocks are nothing short of balletic, and her interactions with Mayra Stergiou are sensitive and engaging. They managed to produce, totally wordlessly, a sense of being simultaneously close and yet distant. And then Stergiou leaves – it’s why I mentioned ‘Paradise Lost’ at the beginning of this review. The physical movements are beautifully executed; but remember that we’re seeing all this shot on a video, and Theo Prodromidis’ camerawork is superb. The lighting effects are ravishing, especially in the later scenes – as well as the lighting on the actor, we are given close-up images of the blocks, glowing with red and blue light refracted through the ice.
A couple of years ago I saw and reviewed Vertebra Theatre’s production of ‘Dark Matter’. That had beautiful lighting effects, too, but it was done on a physical stage with projections onto a screen. As a consequence of the pandemic we’re forced to watch this one online, but personally I think it probably gains in power by allowing the camera to control space and time much more than would be possible in a live performance. So perhaps we are lucky – out of the difficulties of Covid-19 we have gained a deeper experience of a great work of art.
We’d torn down the police ‘no-entry’ tapes, as we’d been urged to do by the young woman, who also gave us placards to carry, and we’d shuffled down the path into the garden. A beautifully-kept garden, about twenty metres across, with shrubs and trees surrounding a central lawn on which we stood. Spotlights lifted small areas out of the evening darkness and gave it the appearance of some sort of grotto.
Now, as we looked up towards the house, a man on a balcony was making a speech to us for the TV news. He’s the Prime Minister, and he was announcing new legal measures against what he called ‘climate change terrorists’ whose activities are threatening the ‘prosperity, growth and jobs’ that the country desperately needs. Mark Katz very much looked the successful politician, in a good suit, and he perfectly managed that vocal tone – half honeyed, half threatening – that we’ve become so used to from our leaders.
But the young activist who’d led us in, Thena, turns out to be his niece; so there was a bitter conflict of values as she admitted to flouting his new law – “It’s not a just law, it’s not the law of Nature”. Her uncle retorted that she didn’t understand the issues – “You’re just a child; you’re a girl.” Power, patriarchy and misogyny: not an attractive combination, and so by now the environmental debate had also become a family struggle. Leda Douglas gave us the passion of the committed activist in her exchanges with her uncle, but she was also able to demonstrate the warmth of the bond she enjoyed with her aunt.
‘Savage Beauty’ is a very immersive production – social distancing meant that we weren’t packed tight, and allowed Thena, and later her aunt Tessa as well, to move around and interact with individual audience members. Edmund Sutton’s clever lighting and Matt Eaton’s sound made us feel present at a real press conference, with photographers’ flashes and the whirr of camera shutters. The spotlights I mentioned earlier lit different areas of the garden in turn, and also the house interior, keeping us on our toes as we turned this way and that to follow the action as it moved from setting to setting.
A lot of the power of ancient Greek myths, and the plays based on them, comes from the fact that the themes they deal with are universal and timeless. Love, hate, ambition, revenge and the inexorable working out of Fate are as relevant today as they were two and a half thousand years ago. And they can withstand – indeed almost demand – being repackaged, retold, in many different settings.
‘Antigone’ is a perfect example – an individual doing what they consider to be ‘the right thing’ against the rules and prohibitions of the State. In Sophocles’ play, Antigone suffers death at the hands of her uncle King Creon, in order to perform the funeral rites that her dead brother needs to enter the Underworld. She tells the King that there are greater laws than his earthly decrees – the eternal Laws of the Gods.
I’ve seen a number of ‘Antigone’s over the years – three of the best, all different reinterpretations, from Actors of Dionysus. ‘She Denied Nothing’ took place in a military hospital in a twentieth-century war zone; ‘Antigone’ was set in a dystopian future where people’s essences, their ‘souls’, were stored on computer chips; and now ‘Savage Beauty’, which deals with the climate emergency and activist groups like Extinction Rebellion.
With ‘Savage Beauty’, AoD’s Director Tamsin Shasha, who also wrote the piece, has given us a cut-down version of ‘Antigone’. A very relevant version, perfectly suited to examining the role of citizens’ protest in a time of increasingly authoritarian governments worldwide. It’s promoted as ‘age 7+’, and that seems about right, aiming it at young people but with enough substance to engage us adults too. None of the complicated extended families of Sophocles’ play; just a principled, passionate young woman, and the different trajectories of the lives of her uncle and aunt.
So the basic environmental message is there – “the icecaps are melting six times faster than we thought” … “If a house is on fire, it’s not a crime to break the windows to save the people inside”. But there’s also a more subtle story: of the brother and sister who grew apart; he to play the political system successfully enough to become Prime Minister, she to abandon her scientific career in botany in disgust at the wrong-headed policies of ‘economic growth’. Tessa dropped out, and now she cultivates her garden, and educates her niece in the uses of herbs.
Sound plays a hugely important part in this production. Juliet Russell was almost hidden in a small tent in one corner, but her singing and rhythmic playing created a haunting envelope of sound that filled the garden (and the street outside, of which more later). It thundered out over an unforgettable section where Tamsin Shasha as Tessa stunned us with her trademark performance suspended from silks, twisting and writhing as she tried desperately to convince her brother that his life had taken the wrong path. All in front of a powerful video projection of Nature, full-on in all its power, glory and savagery.
And on several occasions, dropped in so quietly that we had to listen carefully; the youthful voices of a boy and girl at play – presumably a memory of the uncle and aunt as children – years before they grew older and their paths diverged. Such a subtle evocation of the passage of time.
It ends badly, of course – ‘Antigone’ always does.
But one of the joys of live theatre is that every performance is different. We’d gone to see a play about resistance to the power of The State, written with reference to climate change. As the evening ended, we were spattered by the first drops of rain that heralded Storm Alex, the latest storm to hit the country (can we really have gone through the whole alphabet so quickly?) Then in the final scene, the garden was suddenly invaded by a number of uniformed officers in hi-viz. Was this part of the production? Were they a twenty-first century Chorus? But no – it seems the music, unexpected in the street, had caused one of the venue’s neighbours to call the police, who responded with two van-loads full.
It all ended happily, though. We left the venue almost completely dry, and at liberty, free of the threat of a night in the cells. As Sophocles knew well – if the Gods are with you, the experience becomes richer, and unforgettable.
Waiting for Hamlet
” Alas, poor Yorick! ”
” I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. . . . Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? ”
Where indeed? When Hamlet contemplates Yorick’s skull in Act V of ‘Hamlet’, it’s been twenty-three years since his father’s old jester died, and now his bones lie in the earth of the Palace graveyard. The bones are there, but what about the gibes, the flashes of merriment that were the essence of Yorick? – what’s become of them?
Turns out that Yorick’s essence, his soul if you prefer, is stuck in limbo – unable to move on; either towards Heaven or Hell. He’s been there for more than two decades, but recently he’s had a companion: King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s murdered father.
King Hamlet’s corpse is slowly decomposing in his tomb, but his essence is trapped -somewhere between this world and the next – along with Yorick’s, and that’s where we find them at the beginning of ‘Waiting for Hamlet’.
And what a pair they are. Separated by rank in life, they’ve become equal in death, and they’re perfect foils for each other. King Hamlet understands that he’s dead – although he can’t bring himself to utter the actual word – but he’s desperate to go back to the world of the living, to influence events and bolster his legacy. Yorick understands that they have no power any more, that events are out of their control and they simply have to … wait.
The king is outraged by this: “Kings don’t wait!” – to which Yorick retorts: “Dead kings wait.” Yorick was the King’s Fool, but he’s used to speaking truth to power.
So they wait. The writing has a lot in common with ‘Waiting for Godot’, with two old men arguing about the point of their existence while they wait impotently for something to happen.
Apart from ‘Godot’, to which of course there’s a nod in the piece’s title, ‘Waiting for Hamlet’ reminds us of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’, which also views ‘Hamlet’ from offstage, as it were. It’s a real hommage to Shakespeare’s writing, by a writer who obviously has a deep love for the play and has managed to give it a whole new dimension.
Talking of ‘dimensions’, there are loads of gags and puns in the piece. At one point, Yorick is trying to explain to the King that they’re – “nowhere: no Where; and out of time: no When.”
Hamlet is confused – “Explain that”
Yorick tries to elucidate – “There’s no Time.”
and we get the King’s response – “Briefly, then!”
Another – Hamlet is boasting that his job as King is “To put wrongs to right” – to which Yorick ripostes “You’ve tried to right the wrong wrongs.” Clever, sparkling writing all the way through – though to this reviewer’s ear one or two of the puns were rather painful.
Perhaps the great strength of the play is how it points up the differences between the two men – the King: pompous, completely self-centred, secure in his sense of inherited entitlement and privilege even after death – and the Fool: come up from poverty with nothing but his own talent to make his way. Hamlet is dismissive – “You made a Fool of yourself.” to which Yorick responds – “I made a living.” Hearing the two, I couldn’t help thinking of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
David Visick’s writing is panoptic – it manages to encompass universal themes like the nature of power and privilege, of hierarchy and of how states are governed, not to mention existence itself; while simultaneously commenting on the specifics of Shakespeare’s play: about Claudius and Gertrude and their probable ongoing sexual relationship that led up to Hamlet’s murder. It’s obviously a piece (like ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’) primarily aimed at people who are familiar with ‘Hamlet’, but ‘Waiting for Hamlet’ could be enjoyed on its own, as it’s complete in itself. Hearing the play as an audio track online might in some ways be a richer experience than seeing it performed on stage – less visual distraction from the great writing.
The play’s ending really broke through the ‘fourth wall’ of drama (can you have a ‘fourth wall’ with just audio?), but you’ll have to listen to the production for yourselves to experience the frisson of recognition of Shakespeare’s lines that this reviewer did. Tim Marriott as Hamlet and Nicholas Collett as Yorick are wonderfully cast. Their voices on the audio recording allow us to visualise them in the flesh. Hamlet slightly younger, probably taller, higher pitched and breathless with impatience and status – “It’s a King thing!” is his rationale for any of his actions. Collett made Yorick sound older, wiser and much more resigned to his place in the Universe.
A final thought – we listen to this production of ‘Waiting for Hamlet’ because we can’t go and see it performed; we’re in lockdown and all we can do is sit and wait. Just like the Fool and the King in their ‘no-where, no-when’ existence. And the men who both wear crowns (Yorick used to wear a joke one to amuse the King) would appreciate the irony that we’re kept captive by a Coronavirus – so named because its structure resembles the points on a … crown.
A cancer specialist once said that all cancers start from ‘one rogue cell’. One cell alone, of all the billions we are made of, begins to reproduce uncontrollably, departing from its normal bodily function and multiplying furiously to develop cancerous tissues that could eventually kill the body’s owner.
It’s that sense of ‘going rogue’ that’s the theme of ‘Rebel Boob’ – the idea that a woman’s breasts, evolved to provide nourishment for her offspring, along with sexual pleasure; can turn against her, and end up destroying her life instead of enhancing it.
All the audience members – the men as well as the women – watching ‘Rebel Boob’ know what breast cancer is; some may have developed it, or fear developing it in the future; others may have watched their friends or their partners suffer from it. But in the end; the personal, lived, experience is different for everyone, and everyone has their own way of dealing with it.
Angela El-Zeind was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago. After her treatment and recovery, Angela’s way of coming to terms with the experience was to try to show the rest of us, female and male, what it’s like to be in that situation. Not just her own feelings, of course, that would be too narrow; El-Zeind interviewed a number of women who’d suffered the disease, and gave their words and stories to a small group of actors to perform verbatim.
Just five women, seated on a set of black boxes ranged across the stage before coming forward one by one into the light to give us a taste of someone’s experience, and then returning to sit with her sisters. A large screen behind them showed visuals – moving patterns mostly, completely abstract but powerfully evocative of biological forms, cells perhaps, moving and multiplying. There was sound too: music, but also short clips of women being interviewed, and sometimes the hollow sound of what felt like voices from the women’s own memories – or nightmares.
Doctor’s voice – “Those are cancer cells …”
Five women, giving us the experience of many. It always seems to start the same way – unexpected. “I was forty three, there was no history of breast cancer in my family. I was taking a shower, just doing the usual routine, and I found a lump on my right breast” . . . “He pulled out the needle and said ‘We’re going to need to see you again’. I burst into tears at that point. and thought ‘Oh Fuck. That’s not what I wanted. Oh fuck’.”
We’ve all heard or read about the initial shock of a cancer diagnosis, but Andrea Kelly’s performance gave us an unforgettable sense of the reality of it – the floor falling away beneath her feet, a sudden realisation that life isn’t going to be the same any more. Chess Dillon-Reams portrayed it well – “The doctor, a woman doctor, called me in the room, and without any kindness or anything just said. ‘You have cancer’. You know how they describe in books that the room starts spinning? At that point, that’s how I felt. I suddenly saw the room spinning. And I couldn’t hear the voice. That’s exactly what happened to me. She was talking to me and I remember I lay my head on the wall. And I was catching one word every 10 words or every 20 words.” Later, we got anger. “I was so angry. So angry. That this was happening, and not in a ‘Why Me?’ way. Just in a ‘Fuck You Universe!’ What the fuck do you think you’re doing to me and my children? “
Anger is a powerful way of dealing with trauma, but Angela El-Zeid gave us another woman’s way of coping. “After I was diagnosed with a faulty gene, my mother got tested too. I think she feels really guilty for passing the gene on to me. I tell her that she passed on a lot of other good genes too.”
Supporting her mother, but also supporting herself; refusing to be defined simply by her disease. Because most women don’t embark on this journey in isolation, they have family around them. Aurea Williamson portrayed a woman whose husband – “was so
incredibly strong. I think it can go one way or the other, he really stepped up to the mark and he learnt not to try and fix things and when I was having my three weekly sobs he’d just be there, I’d just need someone to listen and not to say anything, you know, to hear me, just so I could feel heard and understood.”
But Chess Dillon-Reams showed us that it can be the other way. ” My partner doesn’t want to touch my scar, where my nipple used to be. Or look at me naked. He looks away when I undress. I’ve thought about getting a tattoo, to, you know, make it look a bit better.”
Along with the physical effects of the illness and the treatment, there are also the psychological repercussions. “I’ve got hideous amounts of guilt, just hideous amounts. Guilt that I was a burden, guilt that your loved ones have to watch you get sick, guilt that
you think you’re going to die, or the guilt that you are going to die and your parents have to watch you go through that…” As Hermione Purvis spoke these lines she slumped her body sideways, as if weighed down by the immensity of it all, but Chess Dillon-Reams was there to catch her, support her, and lower her gently to a comfortable position lying on the floor. Dillon-Reams is a very accomplished dancer as well as an actor, and the elegant fluidity of her movements (beautifully choreographed by Katie Dale-Everett) added an extra background dimension of emotion to a number of the women’s monologues.
If there’s an underlying theme to ‘Rebel Boob’ – it’s that there is no single response to breast cancer. Everyone travels her own journey. Near the end, Angela El-Zeid gave us one woman’s experience (her own?) – she’d lost her hair as a result of the chemotherapy, but decided to leave her scarf behind and go out bald. “As I walked on the beach, a woman on a bicycle passed me by. She looked directly at me and raised her fist in the
gesture of solidarity … sometimes all it takes is that complete stranger who once stood where you are now, to give you the strength to hope.” Angela raised her own fist as she continued “I pledge allegiance to you, my bosom buddies; my bald eagle cronies; my breast friends; my flat sisters; my areola allies, my titillating comrades; my nippleless amazon warriors; my fellow rebel boobs! We are the club that no-one wants to join, and I pledge allegiance to you all.”
Powerful stuff – but as the light faded, another woman came forward with a different agenda – “What if I don’t want this anymore? What if I just want to move on and not think about it again? Breast cancer shaped me, but I don’t want to let it define me. Not anymore.”
No single response. Just five very talented women providing us with a kaleidoscopic vision of the experiences of millions. It was a remarkable performance – full of hope as well as despair, and joy as well as suffering. The Old Market audience responded with a standing ovation at the finish. This reviewer left feeling emotionally battered, drained, humbled – but also uplifted by this glimpse the power of women’s spirit and resilience.
I shall not forget this performance for a long time.
Di and Viv and Rose
So a nymphomaniac, a lesbian and a sociologist walk into a bar …
Sounds like the opening line of a rather hoary old joke, but it’s a situation that takes place in ‘Di and Viv and Rose’ . The three eponymous characters are students, at Manchester University in 1983, and in one scene they’ve come back to their shared house absolutely trashed, bouncing around the room, still dancing to the music they’ve spent all evening listening to.
Rose is studying Art History, and she’s at least a social class or two above the other pair, with her breathless enthusiasm and her cut-glass accent. She’s on the phone to her stepfather, telling him about another student who goes to Asda – “That’s a supermarket …”. But what she’s really excited about at University is – “Boys!” Sex with boys. Lots of them. She tells Di that it’s like being on holiday in France or Spain, places that are full of available males.
“I’ve never been abroad” replies Di. Di’s from somewhere up North, she’s obviously from working-class stock, the kind of people who don’t do ‘abroad’, and she’s gay. She’s studying English, intent on improving her life, and she’s obviously the first one in her family to get to University. It’s the eighties, remember, so unlike back home there’s a flourishing gay scene, and Di has to deal with the social and sexual pecking-order on the canteen’s Lesbian Table.
The third one’s Viv. Viv is Scottish, and she doesn’t seem interested in sex at all – but she’s fascinated by the social and political attitudes of the other students, writes long essays about ‘economic signifiers’. While Di has joined the campus sports teams and lives in a tracksuit, Viv prefers loose-fitting dresses in rather sober colours, a fashion choice that Rose describes as being “from the Second World War”.
Not an obvious grouping then, but maybe that’s a lot of the point of University – that you’re thrown together with very different people, and sometimes it works and you become friends despite (or maybe because of) the differences. Amelia Bullmore’s play follows the lives of the women over almost three decades, and it’s a warm and funny portrait of female friendship, with its ups and downs, its triumphs and its tragedies.
Such a long-term look at people’s lives gives the piece the feel of a family saga – the kind that fills a fat paperback for summer beach reading, or long winter evenings in front of the fire. I hope I’m not giving too much away when I tell you that there are friendships broken and repaired, births and a death, and a range of locations from Manchester to New York. It’s very funny in parts – Ruby Tiger’s staging at The Rialto got a great number of laughs, but there were more than a few tears too (I know – I asked my neighbours afterwards) at some of the things that happened.
Very much a bare-bones production on the black stage: no background scenery, the set little more than a sofa, a few chairs, and the bare minimum of other props. There are a lot of phone calls between the women themselves, and their families, and for these sequences each actor simply stepped into a spotlight at the front of the blacked-out stage.
The acting – Sophie Dearlove as Di, Emmie Spencer as Viv, and Mandy Jane Jackson as Rose, was almost faultless (occasionally a few lines were delivered a bit fast, making it difficult for the audience to keep up). Claire Lewis’ confident direction allowed the actors to use every inch of The Rialto’s fairly small stage, and Dan Walker’s cleverly focused lighting defined the changes of scene as we moved from place to place and year to year. In all really good theatre, the audience lose the sense of artifice, of actors performing in front of them, and here I quickly got the impression that I was watching three real people. More than just watching them – I cared about them.
My main criticism of Di and Viv and Rose is with the writing itself. The three characters are brilliantly defined, and cleverly contrasted as a group – but each one felt rather two-dimensional. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that they are stereotypes – Di is everyone’s idea of a lesbian, Rose a typical Home Counties Sloane, Viv’s a brainy woman driven by a need to achieve success. I wanted to know more about their back-stories – their politics, their beliefs, their home backgrounds. We were given a few hints, but not sufficient to flesh out fully believable human beings.
What this production excelled at, though, was the sense of time passing. We first meet the women as eighteen, ditzy and hedonistic, and by the end they’re middle aged, with life’s experiences and tragedies behind them. It’s a measure of the skill of the actors and the director that what we were seeing never felt false, or artificial. The characters were young, and then later they were old, and part of the magic of great theatre is that we accepted all parts of it as being … true.