Grabbing my pint downstairs in North London’s edgy Hen and Chicken theatre bar, I realise I’m sitting next to a few white corseted, seductive looking girls. They are speaking with western accents and heckling across the bar. The bell rings and twenty people stand up, following them up the stairs into the theatre. I’m intrigued…am I being transported to 1880’s wild west?
We are hit with a hard-core Brechtian style when the five, who we learn are sex workers, recreate the tale of Belle, ‘The Lady in Blue’, a Wyoming prostitute from the 1880’s. They essentially decide who plays which part by means of an audience member spinning a gun. It’s an exciting way to start this gritty piece of theatre. Tonight, it’s Eliza Jayne Gilroy as the lady in blue, giving us a subtle and emotive performance as she gracefully glides us through this full on western, whilst Stella von Koskull plays antagonist William Gallagher. Von Kuskell’s stage presence brings the required amount of energy and dynamism needed to lift this piece of theatre to that next level.
Writer and director, Maryanna Clarke’s language and wit is another reason this piece feels so exceptional; clever hints at old proverbs and poetic phrases are scattered throughout, while existential themes of love and death are repeatedly stimulated to leave us questioning our own fates, taking my mind to the depths of despair at one point, even shedding a tear. This is perfectly complimented by the lyrical lines that’s like listening to a Wilfred Owen poem such as ‘salty tears onto the shores for eternity.’ Historical context also features alluding to mining and Kyoto millionaires and even hints of environmental pollution, all of this only adds to the sheer intelligence of this piece. If there is one criticism, the consistent dramatic dialogue could possibly become a bit confusing.
Thought-provoking themes come up throughout; the misogyny of men and the black and white portrayal of how women were once treated made me realise how incredibly far we have come within our society and culture, even if some days it may not always seem so.
However, with all this heavy language, light relief is warmly welcomed. William Wheaton (Imogen Read) adds in a satirical, caricature like dimension, with vulgar and phallic references to his manhood which make me belt with laughter. This is enhanced inbetween scenes, with the heavy dialogue broken up further by the ensemble going into soulful, choral singing and cowboy waltz dancing as the set is rearranged. It’s a chance to digest all this fleshy information.
I came out of Six Serpents and a Tarantula speechless. I had time to check I was in fact in North London and not Wyoming. The show ripped at my heart strings and made me question my own love morality. I cried, I laughed, I felt the torture of Belle’s deceit. It was refreshing to see a plot heavy piece of theatre, even if it did leave my head feeling a bit full, where the writer intricately expresses with such depth. The show is totally captivating, with the breaks in scenes and fourth wall crossing boundaries and making it virtually impossible to lose focus. Bursting drama and thriving with rich plot it just makes you yearn to know Belle’s fate.
Written and directed by: Maryanna Clarke
Movement direction by: Sharol Mackenzie
Music direction by: – Imogen Read
Costume design by: Talia Le Sueur
Six Serpents and a Tarantula plays at Hen and Chicken Theatre until 13 November. Further information and booking via the below link.