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Women Redressed, Arcola Theatre – Review

Pros: Consistently accomplished acting, writing and directing across a variety of genres and issues.

Cons: No blurbs on the programme!

Pros: Consistently accomplished acting, writing and directing across a variety of genres and issues. Cons: No blurbs on the programme! Though young, Sheer Height Theatre is at the centre of a trend for female-centred new drama. Run by two actor-producers, the company 'aims to retrieve and revive plays that have women's stories at their hearts and challenge perceived notions of gender’. To this end, Sheer Height took over the Arcola Theatre's lovely studio for a second night of new writing (the first happened last year, and sold out fast), to a thespian, mixed-age audience. Sheer Height had written themselves…

Summary

Rating

Excellent

A world of female-centred new writing in one long, but rewarding evening – a pleasing balance of entertainment and issue interrogation.

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Though young, Sheer Height Theatre is at the centre of a trend for female-centred new drama. Run by two actor-producers, the company ‘aims to retrieve and revive plays that have women’s stories at their hearts and challenge perceived notions of gender’. To this end, Sheer Height took over the Arcola Theatre‘s lovely studio for a second night of new writing (the first happened last year, and sold out fast), to a thespian, mixed-age audience.

Sheer Height had written themselves a tall order: to showcase nine completely different pieces – nine directors leading nine casts – in one evening. A long evening too: the running time wasn’t advertised online, unsurprisingly. In the programme, there was no information about the narratives either – though there was plenty about the creative teams, even including Spotlight numbers. Sigh. Luckily, as the shows unfolded, it really didn’t matter; 140 minutes have rarely gone by so fast, and so enjoyably.

Aware of the need to fit a lot in, the company made sure that each piece moved slickly into the next. No time was wasted in the pieces either: the comedy in Natalie Beech’s Collegiate rollercoastered from slapstick to giggle-choking darkness as quickly as fun might become slut shaming on an ‘innocent’ night out. Sam Warren and Hannah Wood made a watchable duo, though the text never let them address each other directly. Next, Lydia Parker’s A Better Pronoun, expertly directed by Zoe Lafferty, took a light-hearted but nuanced look at contemporary gender identification issues through a conversation between a confused mother (Helen Belbin) and her equally confused-in-a-different-way daughter (a hypnotically graceful Iona Anderson).

To help us through the often heavy subject matter, there were a lot of very welcome laughs. James Corley’s Norfolk used classic stage comedy devices to trick the audience into laughing at the shame of a middle-aged woman (Lin Sagovsky) who fails to seduce her friend. In her hurry to escape the awkwardness, the friend ends up falling back into the ‘mother-wife-servant’ role she had moved to Norfolk to escape from; also cringe-funny. Amy Ng’s Special Occasions focussed on tiny slices of gobbled-up chocolate cake and parental lectures to tell a much more serious story about survival guilt, gender-normative roles, and the weight of expectation upon young women.

For me, the evening’s standout was Roger Goldsmith’s relentless Counting the Days. A bewildered, enraged 15 year old (an utterly convincing Rose Shalloo) interrogates her father, trying to understand how he could have had an affair with one of her school friends. The father, played with sullen shame by Adam Bone, becomes the teenager: avoiding questions, and giving trite, not-quite-true answers. The piece masterfully captures an oppressive, morally unsettling world in a way that Karla William’s sadistic monologue Pretty Bitch – though arresting and ably acted – somehow didn’t quite manage on the night.

In each half of the show there was a big ensemble piece, each featuring one of Sheer Height’s actor/founders, and each impressive in its own way. Sayan Kent’s Jessica was a fun, unexpected reimagining of the Biblical Last Supper – the surprise element made the message about historical censorship instantly accessible. The Male. Gaz by Freddie Van Der Velde was an ambitious piece examining different attitudes to sexual objectification of men, and also how a sense of betrayal can be exacerbated by gender stereotypes. In comparison to these, Shelagh Stevenson’s Five Kinds of Silence – the final piece – felt oddly sparse, and left me wanting more. Not a bad ending!

Sheer Height ask a lot of the audience in one night of thought-provoking, unapologetically issue-laden theatre. But they themselves, and each piece’s creative team, give even more. It was an effort, but I’ve come away with a list of actors and writers to watch, and some serious thinking to do.

Authors: Natalie Beech; Lydia Parker; James Corley, Amy Ng; Roger Goldsmith; Karla William; Sayan Kent; Freddie Van Der Velde; Shelagh Stevenson
Producer:
Sheer Height Theatre
Booking Information:
This show has now completed its run.

About Laura Sampson

Laura Sampson
Laura is a London-born arts evangelist and self-confessed jack-of-all-trades. She ended up studying English and Medieval studies at UCL, then worked in publishing before running off to Tokyo to eat sushi and study Noh drama. Now back in London, she's a stage design agent, storytelling promoter, singer, and radio sound engineer, among other things. She loves seeing all kinds of theatre, and she's particularly partial to anything a bit mythological.