Antidotes to girlie theatre

All-female theatre doesn’t have to be garish entertainment. Two Newcastle plays on this week, Open Clasp’s The Space Between Us and The Killing of Sister George at the People’s Theatre shows what else you can do.

Look, I like women. Most of my friends are female. But I cannot stand girlie entertainment. It took me years to years to recover from the Spice Girls and painful pseudo-feminism. Just when I thought it was safe to go outside, what I do I find plastered over every theatre? Girls Night, set in a karaoke bar featuring songs such as “I Will Survive” and “It’s Raining Men”. Already I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Lauded by critics as  Sex and the City meets Mamma Mia! Not good. Pink glow sticks for the audience. Eeek. And the plot? Apparently five women representing the five “types” on a night out: one “born to party”, one who “says it like it is”, one with “issues”, one “boring but handy for driving”, and one “not so angelic angel.” Oh please … Actually, I think might be a blueprint for my afterlife when I die and get sent to Hell.

(Okay, and to give credit where it’s due, this is not some manufactured bum-on-seats product devised by marketing executives, but a play that writer Louise Roche originally put on off her own back without any big players backing her. For that, and getting a smash hit on audience popularity alone, she has my respect. I suppose I shouldn’t really judge this without seeing it for myself; it’s just that if I had to sit through this, I fear I may go insane.)

But help is at hand. All-female plays don’t have to be garish froth. They can be intelligent and thought-provoking too, and two that have been in Newcastle this week are Open Clasp’s The Space Between Us and The Killing of Sister George at the People’s Theatre.

So, starting with The Space Between Us, this is a lay that has been touring local theatres in the north-east and has concluded its journey at Newcastle’s Live Theatre, a play about four women taking refuge from a storm where three months’ worth of rain fall in one day. My first observation before the play had even started was that the audience was at least 90% female, and for one moment I had a horrible feeling this might involve, say, passing the time with a sing-song of I Will Service and It’s Raining Men before handing out pink glow-sticks. But don’t worry – it’s not. This play is about four women who are stranded in a room during a flood on a “biblical scale”. All the women are outsiders to mainstream society. Three of them are immigrants: a Czech Roma gypsy more welcome in Britain than her own country, a Syrian woman unable to return home as the situation gets worse, and a Nigerian refugee forced to flee from a country where lesbianism is illegal. The last woman is not foreign but still an outsider: a Middlesbrough-born traveller, moving from site to site on the land no-one else wants.

In order to develop the characters, writer Catrina McHugh did a lot of research interviewing real women in similar situations. This has paid off very handsomely, because as well as the four women all being very believable, it is something very close to reality. Often you can get away with skipping research as long as the characters are plausible, but in this sort of play, when a large part of your audience are going to take this as a guide to how real immigrants, Muslims and travellers behave, you’ve got a responsibility to be fair and accurate. My test is that I’ve got a mother who (until recently) did a job that involved working with many travellers and refugees, and she say it’s spot on. Not only that, but there were an excellent all-round performance of the cast to reflect the four characters.

Interesting that the audience was mostly female, and I’m not sure this does the play justice. As I saw it, this play was more to do with being an outsider than being a woman. There are certainly themes in this play that are specific to women (and in particular women from other parts of the world) – the Syrian woman’s futile attempts to make her arranged marriage work in a family that expect her to play second fiddle to her husband; the fate of corrective rape that befall the Nigerian woman’s partner – but this play, I feel, is about being an outsider first and a woman second. One touch I liked was these outsiders all harbouring silly prejudices about other outsiders: the traveller believing all the stuff she saw on telly about the Muslims, the devout Muslim unable to accept any kind of same-sex relationship as acceptable, and all three sharing the idea that all travellers are thieves.

There is one problem with this play: the lack of a coherent storyline. Character-driven plays like this needn’t have a story at all – it is entirely possible to work entirely on character exposition and back-stories. But once you introduce plot-lines, as this play does, you have to take them somewhere. Numerous plot developments, I suspect, were introduced for the sole purpose of revealing something about a character, but never got followed up. For example, there is a wallet belonging to a man with £200 cash inside. At some point, the money disappears from the wallet, and all four women assume someone else must have taken it. Fair enough, this is a good way of showing entrenched distrust of other cultures. But what happened to the money? One of them must have it hidden, and all of them were in desperate enough circumstances to need to money. Who took it and why? Sadly we never find out.

And this is just one of many annoying unresolved matters. I’d assumed the big storm was set on the day of this event last year, but it can’t be because this storm goes on into the night. Was this an imagined storm even bigger than the real one? The four women were going to get on a boat, and when the storm broke they had to wait in an old church. That is very unusual. What was this boat? What were these four women doing trying to get on the boat? Why an old church? Who was this man supposed to be staying with them? Why does no help come when the flood waters start to rise? None of this is explained.

To some extent, this play commits mistake number 6 on my list of common mistakes in playwriting: over-dependence on research. In a bid a cram is as much information as possible about the lives of women like these four, the storyline suffered. And that’s a bit of a shame, because when they were doing things right – the character development, the acting, the directing – it was excellent. This production is, to be honest, more like a workshop product than a play, and whilst it’s very popular with the niche market it appeals to, it’s difficult to see this appealing to a wider audience. That would be selling Open Clasp short because they are clearly capable of achieving this. Come back with a play that combines what they do best with a good synopsis, and then we’ll see how much they can offer.

Now we move on to The Killing of Sister George, by Frank Marcus. This time, it would be no excuse to say it’s only a work in progress, because it’s a classic 1964 play by Frank Marcus and you’ve had more than enough time to see how to do it right. “Sister George” is a much-loved fictitious character is a radio programme very like The Archers, who faces being written out the script in the name of modernisation. The actress, June Buckeridge, is so wedded to her she is often called “George” by her lover “Childie” (real name Alice McNaught). It was one of the first plays to have a lesbian relationship in it, and being the 1960s, this made it controversial. The film was even more controversial because of a rather graphic sex scene (something absent from the story in the stage play, both on-stage and off-stage). And with it being the 1960s, and Nuts and Zoo not having been invented yet, a sex scene involving two women was just not on, and the box office takings suffered heavily as a result of the X certificate.

In my opinion, that have never have been put in the film adaptation, not because I have any problem with depicted homosexual acts in films, but because it’s not what the story is about. Firstly, the lesbian relationship is only one of several threads in the story – the most dominant threads was a power-struggle in broadcasting house and a worryingly accurate prophecy of interference in continuing drama at the behest of market research and chasing ratings. The relationship between “George” and “Childie” as an signficant thread of the story, but the important part is that it’s a dysfunctional relationship rather than a same-sex one. It does have minor connotations, such as Childie being hidden away from the world, her her regrets at not having children, but I’d say the most important aspect of their relationship is that it’s not that different from an opposite-sex relationship. For the film – and by association, the play – to be remembered as the one with the lesbian sex is a massive disservice.

Fortunately, the People’s Theatre didn’t try to imitate the film and instead stuck to what the play was about. As I’ve said before, what matters the most in amateur productions of classic plays is if the company gets the play, and once against, the People’s did. It would have been a real disappointment had they attempted to imitate the film and put in bits not in the play script. They did put in one thing of their own, but that was a cutscene where in the recording studio of the fateful episode, with June distraught as her death was acted out. That was a nice touch.

The odd thing about the play is that even though June isn’t a very nice woman, who regularly humiliates Childie and keep her on a short leash, and is generally drunk and abusive people, and probably at least 75% responsible for her own demise, you still end up feeling sorry for her. Dolores Porretta Brown pulls off this part very well, showing all sides of George, both the unpleasant self-destructive woman you ought to hate, and the vulnerable woman terrified of losing the two things dearest to her. They also found a perfect Mercy Croft, the BBC representative with an agenda of her own, who makes an utterly convincing reassuring face of 1960s television. The only thing I wasn’t quite sure about was the portrayal of the Geroge and Childie’s relationship. Alice McNaught is clearly not the brightest tool in the box, still attached to her dolls; I didn’t really see this come across, but maybe that’s my personal preference.

However, there was one major irritation in the production: one bit early in the second act where George and Childie dance to a tune of the radio – the tune they used sounded like something you hear when you press the “demo” button on an electric keyboard, and certainly not something that would have existed in 1968. It’s things like this that make amateur productions look amateurish, and with the People’s normally so good at attention to detail, I would have thought they’d have know better here. I also had some doubts over the minimalist set with only a few walls at the back; I know I normally argue that acting is more important than scenery, in a single-set play in a theatre of that size it was really an economy too far.

But, on the whole, the People’s did the play justice, far more so than the film, and I’m used to this from the People’s productions now. All I would say is that the People’s don’t seem to be taking many risks – groups like Open Clasp are far bolder in that respect, and whilst Sister George is better as a finished product, The Space Between Us has a lot more potential. But with so many plays out there with horribly one-dimensional female characters from both male and female writers, both plays are good examples of what you can do instead.