Review: Scratch the Surface: The Female Playwright at The Bread and Roses Theatre

The third Scratch the Surface event from Instinct Theatre produced a collection of five very different pieces, with one thing in common: they were all created by women. Covering a range of themes from mental illness to manspreading, the evening brought together an enjoyable and innovative showcase of new writing talent.

Written and performed by Amelia Sweetland, Sharp Edges (directed by Nathan Theys) got the ball rolling with a portrayal of anxiety that’s all too recognisable. Sophie’s having a party, even though she doesn’t really want to – but she’s invited her boss and can’t back down now, despite being almost paralysed by anxiety. And the only person she can talk to about it all… is herself. Gentle humour and extreme Britishness collide with the desperate poignancy of a young woman who knows her irrational fears and lifelong need for perfection are holding her back, but is powerless to get past them.

The second piece, #iAmResilient by Lucrezia Pollice, was easily the most ambitious, combining theatre with audiovisual content to paint a picture of millennial life. Using a screen to show us text, Tinder and Facebook conversations is an inspired touch, given that most of us probably have more interactions on screen than in person these days. That said, future performances could definitely benefit from a bigger screen, to allow everyone to see what’s happening. The piece covers several themes but its main focus falls on Maria, and an honest exploration of the impact of her mental health issues on her relationship with her housemates. #iAmResilient has some interesting ideas, but definitely feels like a snippet of a longer piece, so it will be interesting to see how it develops from here.

Maternity by Stephanie Silver is a comedy, but even this very funny piece has a sting in the tail. Laura’s about to leave work to have a baby, but is anxious that she won’t make a good mum. Even so, her well-intentioned friend Kate is determined to give her a good send-off, whether she wants one or not. In a clever twist, the play sets up the two characters then, without warning, turns our opinions of them on their head. We’re still laughing, but now it’s tinged with a hint of sadness on one hand, and shock on the other. Even so, Laura’s honesty about her fears – however exaggerated in this case – is actually quite refreshing in a world that constantly sells the idea all women are natural mothers.

Saturday Night (directed by Laura Clifford), one of six monologues from Francesca Mepham’s collection No One Wants a Pretty Girl, finds Amber sitting alone at home watching Doctor Who. She’s just split up from her boyfriend (again) and can’t seem to connect with her friends, who just want to go out every weekend rather than catch up with her. A short but heartfelt monologue about loneliness and not quite fitting in, this is a piece of writing that reaches out to anyone who’s ever found themselves in Amber’s shoes – getting pulled back into an unhealthy relationship just for the sake of feeling loved.

And finally, the evening ended on a raucous note with Manspreading by Laura Hall (directed by Niamh Handley-Vaughan), in which the drunken conversation of three young women on a night out turns to the antisocial habit that is manspreading. More specifically, they’re outraged by the fact that it should be the exclusive domain of men – like Yorkie bars all over again, as one of them points out. It’s all very lighthearted and over-the-top, but the play does raise some interesting discussion points about gender roles and differing social interpretations of male and female body language, which seem particularly relevant in light of recent media events.

It’s always interesting to see new writing at such an early stage in its development, and on this occasion particularly exciting to see it all coming from female playwrights. Once again, Instinct Theatre have put together an  evening that provided its audience with plenty of food for thought, but also five talented writers to keep our eye on in the future.

For future Scratch the Surface events, follow @InstinctTheatre on Twitter.

Review: No One Wants A Pretty Girl at the Bread and Roses Theatre

At a time when the theatre is crying out for more female representation, Francesca Mepham and Femm Theatre are doing their best to oblige. No One Wants A Pretty Girl – written, directed and performed by women – is a collection of six monologues, which take us on a short but powerful rollercoaster ride through different aspects of female life, touching along the way on heartbreak, humour and even horror.

Though each one of the six can and does stand alone as an independent story, under Laura Clifford’s direction they also fit cohesively together as a collection, overlapping just enough to allow a brief moment of interaction between performers as they enter or exit the stage. This is a nice touch that gives the piece a feeling of collaboration, even though the individual stories are very different.

In the first, Should, Tayo Elesin has just watched the man she loves get married to someone else. A short but captivating piece, it’s full of pain and futile rage – not against the man in question, but against herself for having lost him in the first place. Things then take a decidedly more upbeat turn in Jade Jacket and Trousers, a story of success against the odds that almost feels like a motivational TED talk. Antonia Kleopa is funny and likeable, and not afraid to directly address members of the audience in order to get her point across. The same goes for Charlotte Hunt’s vain blonde in Side B*tch – except her intention is to make her chosen audience members uncomfortable, and she definitely doesn’t care if we like her. She’s pretty, after all…

Arguably the most powerful of the pieces is My Daddy is Mexican, heartbreakingly performed by Felicity Huxley-Miners. She plays a young blind American whose family has been devastated as a result of racism against her father. As horrific as the story is, particularly in light of recent events in the USA, the end is oddly touching, because despite everything she’s gone through, this young woman refuses to be beaten.

In No Shame, Naina Kohli reminisces about falling for her boyfriend’s sister – but somehow it’s the boyfriend who ends up dominating the narrative, by complaining that he feels ashamed of her new relationship – though she herself knows she’s done nothing wrong. Similarly, in Saturday Night, Farran Mitchell finds herself sitting at home alone watching Doctor Who, waiting for the boyfriend she just dumped to call and beg her to come back. She knows he will, because he’s done it before – and she’s too lonely to resist, even though she knows being with him won’t make her happy.

All six pieces are beautifully written, and resonate with warmth, humour and above all, authenticity; each of the women feels like someone you might actually meet – or maybe even already know. Some you’d want to go for a drink with; others not so much. Some have been defeated by their stories, while others refuse to give in. It’s not always pretty, but that’s exactly the point – women are more than just ornaments, and this enjoyable showcase of female talent does a great job of going beneath the surface to find the individuals underneath.

Follow @FemmTheatre on Twitter for news about future performances.

Interview: Francesca Mepham, FEMM Theatre

FEMM Theatre is a new company producing fresh and exciting theatre by female artists, whose debut production comes to the Bread and Roses Theatre next month. No One Wants A Pretty Girl is a collection of six contemporary female monologues, written by FEMM Theatre’s founder Francesca Mepham.

“It was such a spontaneous decision; I knew I wanted to produce my new play and thought it was time I created my own theatre company,” explains Fran. “The initials of my full name happen to be FEMM, so it was fate that I wanted the theatre company to be one that supports and promotes female creatives. This isn’t to say we are not supporting male creatives, quite the opposite; we want to promote equality and diversity in the arts. I want to support other females, as in this industry that is so important – females showing solidarity to fellow females. You can never have too much kindness!”

Although she’s new to running a theatre company, the multitalented Fran is certainly no stranger to working in the arts: “Well my career’s definitely been varied, which I absolutely love. It’s involved performing, writing, reviewing and PRing! Performing began when I was very young; I was a member of Beck Youth Theatre, who were so supportive of what I wanted to do, which was to simply be creative. I graduated with a BMus Hons degree and I’ve been very fortunate and performed as an events/session vocalist ever since.

“I’ve always written, but it wasn’t until I started reviewing theatre productions a couple of years ago, that I realised I wanted to explore theatre writing and acting again. You could say I just dived straight in and went for it, producing my own plays and now I have my own theatre company! Also, I have a blog called Frantastic View, that aims to inspire other creatives and give an honest look at life in the arts. And I’m Press Manager for Orzu Arts, Britain’s first Central Asian Theatre Company, so I’m always immersing myself in the arts industry somehow!”

Unsurprisingly in such a long and varied career, there have been a lot of highlights. “I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful creatives want to work with me as a writer and a performer,” says Fran. “Performing at Edinburgh is a real highlight, and I’ve recently been chosen for a night of female playwrights produced by Instinct Theatre at The Bread and Roses Theatre. The support for FEMM Theatre has been a huge highlight of 2017. I’ve also recently written for NewsRevue which has been a lot of fun. In the last few weeks I’ve signed to Helen McWilliams Management Agency which has been wonderful, to have that faith in me as an artist.”

No One Wants A Pretty Girl – written by Fran and directed by Laura Clifford – will be performed in its entirety for the first time at the Bread and Roses in Clapham on 16th October. “It’s a collection of six monologues – Should, Jade Jacket and Trousers, Side B*tch, My Daddy Is Mexican, No Shame and Saturday Night – each performed by one of the six-strong female cast,” says Fran. “Each monologue explores the theme of having a secret behind the smile, an inner sadness which we can all identify. There are themes of heartbreak, loneliness, prejudice, to name just a few; there is no sugar coating, just a rawness from each character. This is life and even in sadness there is beauty.

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“I wrote Should for Theatrefullstop in late 2015 at 2am for their Monologue Monday, which they were filming for their blog, and I continued writing monologues for the collection – initially three, those being Jade Jacket and Trousers and Side B*tch which they recorded for their podcast late last year, with actress Charlotte Hunt. It was actually Charlotte who said how much her friends she worked with at a call centre, who were also actresses, had enjoyed reading the monologues, as there aren’t that many contemporary monologues for women in their 20s-30s that are relatable out there.

“Then in March of this year, Should was performed at Instinct Theatre’s Scratch The Surface at The Hen and Chickens Theatre, directed by Laura Clifford and performed by Tayo Elesin. I realised that from its warm reaction, I had to write more and make the monologue collection into a full length show, with Laura’s amazing direction. Big thanks to Theatrefullstop and Instinct Theatre, two female-led theatre tour de forces, who have been so supportive of No One Wants A Pretty Girl.”

One of Fran’s primary goals with FEMM Theatre is to promote diversity of all kinds in theatre and the arts. “It’s so important as diversity equals equality; theatre needs to give all creatives equal opportunities,” she says. “Glass ceilings need to be shattered and the industry needs to be aware of theatre makers that need that extra encouragement and support. We all need to support each other in theatre. With FEMM, we put our ethos in to action and cast BAME actors as a priority. That’s what needs to be done – a little less conversation and more positive action in the arts. We also want to address the problem of ageism, especially towards actresses in theatre.”

And finally, to anyone – particularly women – thinking about getting into playwriting, Fran has a few words of advice: “Do it! Literally go for it, be bold, be brave and just be yourself.”

Book now for No One Wants A Pretty Girl at the Bread and Roses on 16th October.

Review: Day Job at the Bread and Roses Theatre

Guest review by Ross McGregor

Written and directed by Evi Stamatiou, this is the first production from Fanny Pack Theatre, an all-female collective founded by Rachel Scurlock and Maria Alexe. Their company seeks to produce “contemporary stories about contemporary women”, and has been set up to tackle theatrical gender inequality. In a recent interview with The Stage, the co-founders said they wished to focus on working with women who are “outside the industry norm”, and although this is perhaps a lofty way of saying “give character actors a chance”, Day Job proves that the actresses in this project should be anything but overlooked.

Photo credit: Minglu Wang
Photo credit: Minglu Wang

Constructed as a series of interlocking tales about the lives of four female artists struggling to make ends meet in modern day London, Fanny Pack Theatre have created an energised, vibrant, engaging and at times hilarious piece of new writing. The device that links the narratives is the fact that all four women share the same bus journey to work, and scenes switch and intersect with ease thanks to Minglu Wang’s simple yet effective (and entirely blood-red) set. There is a degree of physical theatre and symbolised movement that is incorporated more or less well into the piece and melds fluidly with the more script-based moments.

Of the three stories, Maria Alexe’s songstress French teacher stands out as the highlight. The tale of a woman needing to get to a potentially life-changing audition whilst being stuck between a gaggle of remedial students and an overbearing teaching supervisor was played to perfection by Maria Alexe, and the fact that it involved a degree of comfortable audience participation made it all the more enjoyable. As Alexe’s frustration and desperation with her predicament grew, so in turn did the hilarity of the scene, and for me it was the highlight of the production. 

Because unfortunately the other tales, one of baby-stealing escort service and a receptionist-murdering Devil Wears Prada rip-off were far too absurd and long-winded to maintain the laughter. With the French Class tale, it seemed obvious what we were in for: an hour of semi-autobiographical tales of the plight of being a part-time actress/full-time barmaid, but then shortly afterwards the subsequent stories descend into surreal tales from the underworld, with an infernal and demonic escort agency (with their contact phone number even ending in 666 we wave goodbye to subtlety) owning the rights to every baby their escorts produce, and a team of receptionists for “Dirty Business Inc.” (a company along the lines of Enron one assumes) being slaughtered by their line manager as the police break down the doors. The jokes started to flag here, and the characters, whilst ably held up by the talented cast, are just too two-dimensional and grotesque to warrant concern.  It’s also a shame that the writer/director/devisers picked sex worker as a generic female job – surely this experience is not as widespread and relatable as teaching, bus driving or receptionist? This decision is so clichéd that it feels like Fanny Pack are actually promoting the theatrical views their company attests to strive against. A misstep here, to my mind.

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Photo credit: Minglu Wang

These script qualms aside, it is the cast that deserve the highest praises. Switching from role to role in a matter of seconds, handling pathos and comedy with a clear aptitude, this quartet of actress prove that they’re a force to be reckoned with. Rachel Scurlock chews the scenery in every role she assumes, and is a complete delight to watch – she steals every scene and comes complete with an electricity in her eyes that makes her almost impossible to stop watching. Maria Alexe has a sultry, captivating and vivacious presence on stage, as well as a truly beautiful singing voice. Clare Langford is perhaps the most introverted and demure of the group, though this may be due to the selection of roles she’s given, and thrives when she is given the opportunity. Out of the four, Langford is the most underused, and this is a shame as she seems capable of tackling so much more than the material she was given. Stephanie Merulla as the enigmatic bus driver is the heart of the piece and holds the shows thematically together with a wry and knowing delivery, knowing how to hold back when needed and sharply point every punchline she’s given. 

Day Job is an entertaining night out held together by four very talented young women. The script needs work in terms of its focus, but the performers deal with this ably, allowing their natural talent and creativity shine through.

Find out more about Fanny Pack Theatre on their website.