Tag Archives: Damsel Productions

“The Amber Trap” at Theatre 503

Here’s a strange situation – writing a review you don’t really want anyone to read. Because much of the success of Tabitha Mortiboy’s new play, staged with customary skill by Damsel Productions, comes with the journey it takes and the twist it contains. Do see it for that alone, as surprises in the theatre are memorable treats.

The Amber Trap opens on a gentle romance. Katie and Hope are lovers who work together in a small shop, and Oliva Rose Smith and Fanta Barrie make the young couple a pleasure to watch. Obviously, you know the course of this true love will get bumpy and, when gap-year would-be medic Michael arrives, youthful, keen and cute, it seems we’re in for a coming-of-age story. Here, the questioning of sexuality is nicely written and handled with sensitivity, yet might have a surer grasp of its comic potential.

Things become more serious and thought provoking – but not quickly. Director Hannah Hauer-King respects the text and doesn’t rush, lulling us into a false sense of security. The care Hauer-King takes is clear and convincing. In truth, the play isn’t quite long enough. The role of the shop’s manager, an older, soon-to-be divorcee, becomes a bit of a puzzle and proves a part that Jenny Bolt has to struggle with. But Hauer-King gives the show weight, with judicious pacing that demands pauses for thought.

The thinking that creeps up on us is a serious point – which should occupy us all, but often doesn’t – that shows Mortiboy has her finger on the pulse of debate. The play reveals Michael’s male, heterosexual gaze on the female, gay couple. I’m a little too squeamish to enjoy Mortiboy’s heavy metaphor with an eyeball, but it’s effective (just ask George Bataille). And the point that Michael demands control, with a chilling infantile glee, is important. His view of the women is on a spectrum of cheap thrills and insulting disbelief, while his crush on Hope becomes increasingly menacing.

Misha Butler

Michael’s impact on the couple is scary and all too real, and Katie and Hope’s responses of, respectively, fear and anger are on the nose. Rose Smith’s powerful reaction to a cheeky kiss Michael steals is salutary – this is not an act to dismiss (were you tempted to?). But it’s the role of Michael that is Mortiboy’s key move. His slight physicality, youth and status as the new arrival at work – all of which Misha Butler, who takes the part, carries well – cannot diminish his privileged position among the women. Michael’s sense of entitlement may be exaggerated for dramatic effect – and arguably the action turns nasty too quickly and too close to the end of the play – but, as his instability becomes obvious and his toxicity infectious, the bold structure makes the piece original, disturbing and rather brilliant.

Until 18 May 2019

www.theatre503.com

Photos by The Other Richard

“Fabric” at the Soho Theatre

Abi Zakarian’s play is truly exciting – this is theatre that believes it can change minds and lives. Bravo, Damsel Productions! But let’s not forget that facilitating this is a behind-the-scenes team of considerable talent. The care taken to develop characters, on and off-stage, the precise plotting and structure – this is how you write a play – and Hannah Hauer-King’s direction are all impeccable. The solo performer, Nancy Sullivan, astounds with her passion and physicality… but don’t forget the technical ability it takes to cry your eyes out and not lose a line. Applause, please, for the craft on offer here.

Zakarian’s skill is to see a big picture and make her play of one woman’s story so thoroughly contextualised. This is the Holy Grail for many a political writer, and notoriously difficult. But with control and attention, which Hauer-King consistently nurtures, we understand that the title is inspired by the fabric of society. The structure of female lives, shaped and prepared for abuse, are the weft and warp we see woven before us in a depiction of systemic misogyny. To crib from Rozsika Parker, Zakarian creates a subversive tapestry for our consideration.

We follow Leah from her courtship through to marriage and then to a court case where she tries to prosecute her husband’s friend after he rapes her. But this final traumatic scene, depressing in its predictable futility, is presaged with drama and intelligence. The sickening moments of Leah in the witness box – when she comes into the audience itself – are a culmination of how she has been treated all along. There’s an uncomfortable link to the indebtedness her own family and mother-in-law expect her to feel at having found an eligible bachelor. And there’s a traumatic wedding night with her new husband that is very difficult to watch. The journey is handled adroitly. After presenting a gorgeously bubbly and endearing character at first, Sullivan deepens Leah’s appeal with great observations and carefully balanced humour. Yet voiceovers alert us that something has gone wrong, and tension mounts ferociously.

Rips, tears and bodily fluids stain the perfect life Leah aims for, using dresses she wears on key occasions as metaphors, building a sense of menace and highlighting that, for women, presentation becomes a constant burden. As Leah’s life unravels, how the pressures and punishments of expectations and prejudice enwrap her become literal; her clothing is used as evidence in court. Fabric reports on the state of things with magnificent insight. But there is, thankfully, an optimism in the ability to unpick and expose, as the talented women who have made this play have done. With threads loosened, there is the chance to breath and await what will be woven anew.

Until 22 September 2018

www.sohotheatre.com

Photo by The Other Richard

“Grotty” at the Bunker Theatre

Damsel Productions is an exciting young company on to a winner with Izzy Tennyson’s new play. Rolling up its sleeves and getting… well, very dirty, this show answers the palpable need for diversity and work from women on stage. So the first thing to say about Grotty is that you should go!

Tennyson guides us through a world seldom depicted – the lesbian sub-culture of East London – with fierce intelligence, wicked humour and a throbbing heart. The play is funny, but this isn’t a fun trip. Taking to the stage as “sad little lesbo” Rigby, Tennyson leads us on a revelatory journey about youth today. There’s a litany of millennial woes providing five-star laughs – from Facebook to flats – arguably more than enough for any coming-of-age story. But the major concern isn’t sexuality – it’s mental health. The “chronically disheartened” Rigby dangerously self-medicates, and the play is frank and frightening in its personal telling of this increasingly important issue.

Tennyson’s writing is invigorating, showing a yen for the macabre and a strong sense of the theatrical that some might feel needs tempering. There’s a lack of polish, which it’s tempting to suggest is a perverse, stubborn idea about being radical. But the raw ideas are profuse, exciting and profound. The script overreaches, but director Hannah Hauer-King does a good job at restraining it; her use of the performance space is brilliant – sympathetic to the script and aiding clarity.

Rebekah Hinds, Izzy Tennyson and Grace Chilton
Rebekah Hinds, Izzy Tennyson and Grace Chilton

For all her bad posture and face pulling, Tennyson is incredibly magnetic. Her observational comedy is spot on, her talent for satire considerable, and she is a real original. Too many lines are hurried, there aren’t enough pauses for some great jokes, but I was transfixed by this performance. Her fellow actors often do better at the technical delivery of her words. With fewer idiosyncrasies, Rebekah Hinds and Grace Chilton put on a fine show as ex-lovers who have affairs with Rigby in turn, making a plot line crying out for elaboration work. And Anita-Joy Uwajeh is superb with her transformations into three roles.

Anita Joy Uwajeh
Anita Joy Uwajeh

So what really is grotty? It’s not the play’s explicit sexual content. Although Rigby’s encounters with symphorophilia are darkly hilarious, her definition of lesbian sex is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. What’s grotty turns out to be the connections between people: the characteristics and insights we pick up from lovers, the inheritance of our experiences. And this idea is, frankly, a downer. What happens to the capital-letter Self from such a premise? In Rigby’s demented, disturbing struggle, Self is compromised and objectified, becoming “an experience rather than a person”. And defined by work – “I am an intern” is the drug-induced cry – not an identity, just a job. Add a matricidal urge that would have a psychoanalyst doing cartwheels, leading to a twist brilliantly handled by Hauer-King, and we come close to being lost in Tennyson’s psyche – so compelling does it become. But the real kicker is this fear of connection when applied to a Structuralist simulacrum that offers love – a meeting with another, I suspect that should be an Other, who mirrors Rigby. And is rejected. At this point you just want to hug the girl. Not so much grotty as grim – but brilliant at the same time.

Until 26 May 2018

www.bunkertheatre.com

Photos by The Other Richard

“Fury” at the Soho Theatre

Damsel Productions’ third show confirms that this young team can pick a great play. And that co-founder/director Hannah Hauer-King is a confident, fresh talent. An intelligent interaction with the story of Medea, achingly contemporary and set on a South London council estate, Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s script has a brave lyricism and the production is gut-wrenchingly gripping.

There are more topical concerns here than you can shake a stick at: gentrification, a clash of classes and the collapse of the welfare state. Yet there’s no trace of ticking boxes, rather a sincere wish to question the demonisation of a “terrified and lonely” single mother. Sarah Ridgeway takes the main role, a performance magically more than the sum of its parts, made intense by the play’s aim of “showing us the pieces of her life”.

An Argonaut is notably absent here. Instead there’s an upstairs neighbour, a student called Tom who comes to dominate and abuse. The role is perhaps the play’s weakest link as he’s too creepy from the start, besides the fact that anyone at college who hires a cleaner is suspect. Thankfully, when a truly evil side is shown, Hauer-King has established enough momentum for Alex Austin to shine in the part.

Eclair-Powell’s most fruitful synthesis from Euripides is the reconfiguration of the Greek chorus. Performed by a talented trio, Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Daniel Kendrick and Anita-Joy Uwajeh, they are beautifully choreographed and their singing sounds great. They do so much: shaping action and interpretation, by turns interrogatory, accusatory and sympathetic. Adopting secondary characters roots us in the real world and ensures Fury is stimulatingly layered.

Towards the bloody finale, the chorus appear as social workers. This Medea’s revenge and desperation is not focused on a single man. Casting her net as wide as can be, Eclair-Powell’s ambition is brilliantly refocused – it isn’t just one woman’s life we see on stage but our whole society.

Until 30 July 2016

www.sohotheatre.com

Photo by The Other Richard

“Dry Land” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

A new company, Damsel Productions, gets off to a swimming start by bringing Ruby Rae Spiegel’s play across the pond from America. Set almost entirely in a high-school locker room, two girls on a swim team plunge into topics of teenage dreams and sexuality along with a brutal, but brilliant, examination of abortion, in this intelligent coming-of-age drama.

Hannah Hauer-King directs. The tension between the friends is terrifically handled and the harrowing scene of Amy’s internet-purchased abortion appropriately difficult to watch. There’s a suspicion the play itself is funnier than Hauer-King allows: two smaller roles, well performed by Charlotte Hamblin and Dan Cohen, perhaps suffer a little from this. A gallows humour pervades the text – depressing given the characters’ ages. And, to be fair, Spiegel’s craft lies in making the jokes painfully ambivalent – it somehow feels inappropriate to laugh at these girls. With such a sensitive subject matter, the naivety here may be just too dangerous to be a funny.

Marvellous performances deal well with the subtle script. The dynamics of an intense friendship fascinate, with Aisha Fabienne Ross’ sensitive Ester winning sympathy from the start while Milly Thomas’ “not nice” Amy has her troubled personality slowly revealed. Combining a cruel humour and dash of desperation on the girls’ part, the play sums up teenage angst for a new generation. Dry Land is a dive into young lives that may give some parents nightmares but should be seen by all.

Until 21 November 2015

www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

Photo by Richard Davenport