Review: Things That Do Not C(o)unt at Waterloo East Theatre

2018 is an interesting time to be a woman. On the one hand, it’s depressing to realise that we haven’t progressed as far as we might have hoped; on the other, it’s inspiring to see so many female role models emerging to tirelessly campaign for change.

One of these is Nastazja Somers of No Offence Theatre, who along with Bj McNeill has created experimental feminist show Things That Do Not C(o)unt, exploring themes of body positivity and female sexuality. Following in the footsteps of the similarly daring Torn Apart (Dissolution), this solo show is a bold, visceral and uncompromising hour of theatre that’s clearly fuelled by frustration and an urgent need to speak out, but with a welcome smattering of humour that every woman in the room can relate to. In a twist, though, there’s also an autobiographical element to the show, as Somers looks back on her Polish heritage and reflects on its impact on her relationship with her body. And if all that doesn’t get your attention, there’s also free vodka.

Through a combination of performance – some in Polish – and video footage she lays herself bare, openly discussing sexual encounters and past struggles with self-image. It’s clear from the start this is not your typical one-woman show, as she spends the first few minutes eating a grapefruit with sensual relish, smiling serenely at the audience, and without saying a word. (Warning to the front row: you may get splattered by flying fruit juice. On the other hand, you’re also first in line for vodka – so I’ll leave you to weigh that one up.)

This isn’t the only food to be consumed during what turns out to be an extremely messy show, as Somers examines with increasing passion the conflict between enjoying food (and sex) and the inevitable guilt that so often follows in the wake of society’s disapproval and judgment. And that judgment doesn’t only come from men, but from women too: her mother wishes aloud that she was “a bit anorexic”, other girls at school tease her about her early development, and a disembodied female voice repeatedly brings up the subject of body image, insisting “diet, exercise” is the answer to everything. Yet despite all this, it’s her grandmother’s message – one of positivity and unconditional acceptance – that she chooses to hold on to.

It’s not always comfortable to watch (fish guts, anyone…?), and is definitely not your traditional night at the theatre – but at the same time it’s impossible not to be inspired by the fearlessness, energy and power of Nastazja Somers’ performance, or to feel the powerful impact of Things That Do Not C(o)unt‘s taboo-smashing content.

Also, did I mention the free vodka?

Things That Do Not C(o)unt is at Waterloo East Theatre (part of Vault Festival 2018) until 18th March.

Review: Conquest at The Vaults

One of the interesting things about the #metoo movement that’s been sweeping social media since the Harvey Weinstein revelations is how it’s been just as much of a wake up call for women as it has for men. And not only in terms of realising the scale of the issue; many women will have spent time over the last few months re-evaluating incidents from our own lives that we might have previously played down, tried to justify to ourselves, or never even thought of as unwanted physical contact.

Alice’s #metoo moment happens in Boots, as she’s buying the morning after pill following a one night stand that on reflection, she’s not at all sure she wanted to happen but was basically too polite to put a stop to. As fate would have it, she bumps into Jo, a perfect stranger and committed feminist, who’s irritated by what she sees as Alice’s weakness (she cries a lot, apparently) but also spies an opportunity to recruit a new member for her feminist revenge group, Conquest.

Conquest’s mission is simple: to take revenge on men who’ve shown they don’t understand that no means no. They do this via the inventive medium of cupcakes – with one very unique ingredient. (I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say I went in half hoping we might get cupcakes as part of the show, and left very glad that we didn’t.) Whether this approach actually achieves anything is unclear, however, and when Alice freaks out on her first cupcake delivery run, it all begins to unravel.

Written by Katie Caden and directed by Jess Daniels, this funny and thought-provoking debut from PearShaped Theatre is brought to life by Lucy Walker-Evans and Colette Eaton, in a fast-paced performance that never flags in energy (their breaking and entering exploits are particularly fun to watch). Along the way, they take on a variety of characters, among them Jo’s chain-smoking mum Angela – also a feminist, but of the old-school variety – and Alice’s nonplussed, boxers-clad revenge target, Dave. This multi-roling approach is acknowledged early on in one of many direct addresses to the audience, but a warning that we might get confused proves unfounded; the characterisation of each is distinct, and smoothly handled by both performers as they scurry from chair to chair, adopting different postures and accents as they go.

In the end, though, this is Alice and Jo’s story; a story of two very different women drawn together by their need for solutions to a problem so massive that it’s impossible to even fully get your head around, let alone know where to start in fixing it. (Which raises the question: why should it be the responsibility of women to fix it anyway?) What makes the two unlikely friends so appealing to watch, besides their constant amicable bickering, is that there’s far more to both of them than their initial stereotyping would suggest. And while all their plans seem to end in disaster, at least they’re doing something.

At a time when sexual consent is high on many agendas, Conquest is a timely and important piece of work, which exposes the complexity of the issue in a way that speaks to both male and female audiences. And if it makes you think twice the next time someone offers you a cupcake – well, that’s probably a small price to pay.

Conquest‘s run at Vault Festival 2018 is now over – but keep an eye on @pearshapedplays for future news.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: A Womb of One’s Own at The Space

Apparently 1 in 3 women in the UK will have an abortion at some point in their life. I had no idea of this statistic, largely because it’s not a subject many people like to talk about. Especially if, like Baby Girl – the central character in A Womb of One’s Own – they’re the product of a strict Catholic upbringing, have no mother or close friends to turn to, and just accidentally got pregnant in their first week at uni.

Photo credit: Olivia Early

Inspired by writer and performer Claire Rammelkamp’s own experience, A Womb of One’s Own tells Baby Girl’s story as she heads off to university, ostensibly to become an “independent woman”, in reality because she wants to have lots of sex without her elderly relatives (or God) watching her every move. Baby Girl’s experiences as she revels in her new freedom are hilariously disaster-strewn, but also everyday enough that pretty much anyone in the room will be able to nod at least once and say, “Yep, that happened to me once.” (Even if it’s just having a huge crush on Idris Elba, because – well, who doesn’t?) Consequently, we’re already totally invested in Baby Girl and her story long before we get to the serious part of the evening.

Which is important, as it turns out – because the primary focus of this play isn’t a political or ethical debate about the pros and cons of abortion; though these are briefly touched on, Baby Girl is never in any doubt that at this point in her life, ending the unwanted pregnancy is absolutely the right decision. Instead, the show’s aim is to explore what it’s like, having made up your mind to have an abortion, to then go through that difficult experience, particularly if you don’t have anyone around to offer support. The agonising three-week wait between initial assessment and the actual clinic date; the temptation to do internet research into the baby’s development; and the physical and emotional impact of the procedure itself, are all explored sensitively by Danica Corns, Carla Garratt, Larissa Pinkham and writer Claire Rammelkamp. In a seamless ensemble performance directed by Holly Bond, each of the four plays a different aspect of Baby Girl’s personality, as well as enthusiastically bringing to life the various larger than life characters she encounters along the way.

Photo credit: Olivia Early

It’s an interesting decision to tackle such a sensitive subject with humour, but the show knows its limits, and approaches the second part of the story with appropriate sobriety – the aim at this point to educate more than entertain. And it’s obvious from the comprehensive support and information in the show’s programme, described in its introductory notes as a “zine”, that the ladies of newly-formed all-female collective Wonderbox have a bigger goal in mind than simply making us laugh.

Though not always an easy watch, A Womb of One’s Own is an honest, courageous and entertaining attempt to break down the walls of silence preventing people from openly discussing what it’s like to have an abortion. By sharing her experience, Claire Rammelkamp helps many of us understand a subject we may previously have given little thought to, while at the same time letting other women who’ve been through a similar experience know they’re not alone, and that it’s okay – and perhaps even helpful – to talk about it.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Anthony Orme, Sanctuary

2040. The war is over, and the world is resolved… so why can’t Kari remember anything? What is S.A.M. and how can she escape Sanctuary?

So begins Anthony Orme’s feminist sci-fi thriller, Sanctuary. “In the aftermath of the war, Kari Allwood wakes in a cell with no recollection of how or why she got there,” explains Anthony. “We see as she struggles to survive her life as a woman in the army and to comprehend the mistakes that she has made and conquer her own mental instability. Tackling the subjects of women at war, PTSD, and the essence of human self-preservation, Sanctuary creates an exciting and thrilling whirlwind of a show that will leave you questioning your own view on life as we currently understand it.”

Anthony was inspired to write Sanctuary by two main factors: “The first was my own history and exploration of mental health and its effect on my own life, and secondly the lack of representation of women in war and theatre,” he says. “Having struggled with mental health issues all my adult life but never really having a way to present parts of it, I wanted to create a piece that discussed this as well as being entertaining and enthralling – which is where the idea of Sanctuary was born. From there I started to look closely at PTSD and the women who suffer from it and how little we hear about them, much like strong females in the arts. All three combined became the perfect inspiration for a play.

“I’ve always been a massive fan of sci-fi. I think when done correctly, it enables viewers to see and acknowledge problems in their own society without even realising. The entertainment and escapism of future and the unknown wraps the audience in a blanket of theatre and art which allows them to soak in the political and social undertones of a piece. With a piece like Sanctuary there is no other genre it could have been. Plus it’s also very rare to find a strong piece of sci-fi on stage and so I was very up for taking on the challenge.”

As writer and director, Anthony is full of praise for actors Elizabeth Robin and Catalina Blackman. “They are two of the most hardworking and dedicated cast I have had the pleasure to work with. Sanctuary is not an easy play – it’s intense, real and a challenge for any actor, yet these two incredible women have been stoic throughout. Both characters are equally challenging – one is never on the stage and so has to express empathy, fear and desire using only her voice, while the other never leaves and has to hold the show and bare a lifetime’s worth of emotions alone and exposed. They truly are artists of their craft.

“It’s fair to say that we have had our fair share of personal trauma throughout the rehearsal process, which leaves me in even more awe of the incredible performances they have delivered.”

With themes of feminism, LGBT, mental health and war, Anthony believes every audience member can take something from the play. “Maybe I’m biased, but I feel that Sanctuary speaks to people from all ages and creeds,” he says. “I might add that due to very adult themes and language it may be best to restrict the viewing to audiences above the age of 16… but we all learn sometime.”

In addition to winning Best Play at the Stockwell Play House One Act Festival, Sanctuary is also Bechdel approved. “The Bechdel Test and Bechdel Theatre are in my opinion one of the most important companies in the arts at the moment,” says Anthony. “Their aim is to bring awareness to pieces of theatre that have strong feminist bases. The test is simple:
1. Are there two women on stage?
2. Are they talking to each other?
3. Does that conversation involve anything except men and relationships?
Congrats – you have been approved.

“Why it is so important to me? In short, there is too little theatre around with strong female characters, and too much that thinks their characters adequately represent real women. It has always been a strong passion of mine to create parts for women and to prove that feminism and equality aren’t fads… they are here to stay. Having Sanctuary Bechdel approved not only proves that we have been able to, but also helps to raise awareness of this glaring issue and highlights to fellow feminists the theatre they should be seeing.”

London and Merseyside-based Now You Know Productions was founded four years ago. “We started as most small companies do, with a few friends, in a bar, wanting to take a piece of theatre to the Edinburgh Fringe, and we did,” says Anthony. “We took I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change up and haven’t looked back since.

“Since our first outing, Now You Know has grown and developed into the company it is now, a company who creates new and exciting theatre that constantly tries to break the mould and highlight the real issues at hand. We are always looking for the next best play and team and constantly growing. Commercial theatre to some extent has forgotten what theatre is for, which is to enlighten, to teach and to empower… we have not forgotten this message.”

Sanctuary opens at the Tristan Bates on 14th August. “I think people should come and see the play because it’s exciting, different and the themes are important,” says Anthony. “It’s not just another millennial piece of theatre where boy meets girl – it has a message and a purpose, one which I think matters. That’s why we decided to go to the Tristan Bates, a space that prides itself on fringe theatre at the front of change.

“Also having won best play, as well as highly commended directing and acting at the Stockwell Playhouse One Act Festival, people don’t need to just take my word for it.”

Book now for Sanctuary at the Tristan Bates Theatre from 14th-19th August.

Interview: Claire Rammelkamp and Danica Corns, A Womb of One’s Own

The founding members of emerging all-female theatre company Wonderbox – who include Danica Corns, Carla Garratt, Claire Rammelkamp, Holly Bond, Larissa Pinkham and Olivia Early – met as members of the National Youth Theatre. “We got so comfortable with each other that we started oversharing about sex, periods, emotions, mental health, politics, relationships, wanking… the list goes on,” admits Claire. “So we decided to carry on doing that as a theatre company, and turn it into art. We want to explode taboos and share unheard stories with some filthy, fabulous feminism.”

They’re turning their attention first to the issue of abortion in their debut production A Womb of One’s Own, which runs at The Space from 15th-19th August.  “The play follows the story of Babygirl, an eighteen-year-old fresher who was raised Catholic by two strict elderly women and ends up getting pregnant the first time she has sex,” says Claire, who wrote and performs in the play, as she and fellow cast members Danica, Larissa and Carla bring Babygirl to life, revealing different aspects of her personality and an absurd cast of characters. “It starts off as a coming of age comedy; she’s learning how to flirt and get drunk, she’s exploring her sexuality, she’s trying not to embarrass herself on a date. Then all of a sudden she’s facing much bigger challenges.”

A Womb of One’s Own was inspired by Claire’s own personal experience: “I had an abortion at university, and I had no idea how to handle it because no one had ever spoken to me about abortions. Fortunately, I have a very supportive Mum and friends. Babygirl doesn’t have a mother, and she’s only been at uni a few weeks, so the play explores what it would be like to go through an abortion feeling totally alone.”

One of Wonderbox’s aims is to break the taboos surrounding abortion and get people talking about what’s traditionally been a difficult subject. “We’re still oddly hung up on old-fashioned notions of propriety when it comes to discussing abortion,” says Claire. “It used to be the same for divorce and homosexuality. Even periods. One in three women in the UK will have an abortion at some point, and yet people are largely silent about it. If we all spoke about it more then women wouldn’t feel scared or ashamed. We’ve still got a lot of education work to do to give women control over their own bodies and we need to make sure we don’t go backwards – like with Trump’s abortion gag order.”

Despite the heavy topic, Claire and her co-founders are quick to point out that the show is at times irreverent and laugh-out-loud funny: “I’m a firm believer in laughing at essentially everything, especially myself. We didn’t want to be didactic – an audience will pay much more attention to a comedy full of sex jokes than a lecture. It also helps to humanise a character; once the audience have shared a joke with Babygirl they’ll have more empathy when she starts having a hard time.”

And it seems to be working; they’ve been thrilled with early responses to the show, which include an endorsement in February from actor Paul McGann. “Our first performance was to a bunch of queer, feminist, theatre-lovers, so we were really preaching to the choir,” says Claire. “But then our second audience had middle-aged people, older people, Tories, and a vicar. The vicar was especially fond of it.”

Of course, starting a theatre company isn’t always easy, and co-founder Danica has no hesitation in identifying their biggest challenge: “Money! We’re a young, unfunded theatre company so this is of course the first and biggest obstacle we are having to overcome – but we are getting creative with how we do this. Finding rehearsal space free of charge has been and remains one of the biggest challenges we face, and so far we have been getting round this by using gardens, living rooms and empty classrooms at our universities/previous places of study. We even once did a voice warm-up on Clapham Common. Social media has also been a great alternative to a website for us in the first instance to help build our online presence while funding is scarce.

“Around 90% of the work we put into the company and the show is not in the rehearsal room,” she adds. “We’ve all had to turn our hands to other things and use our skills and knowledge effectively and efficiently. We’re lucky enough to have a photographer, a designer, a marketer and members with lighting technician knowledge within our company, so we haven’t had to hire anyone in yet – which would come with a cost. However, while we’re all working hard on this to get things off the ground, we have found it difficult balancing being creative and making the art with the admin and running the business side of the company – it’s a bit of a juggling act at the moment, and we’re still figuring this out. One of the things we are finding so important is timetabling separate rehearsals for creativity and meetings about important business stuff.”

Claire’s hoping that the show will speak to everyone, whether or not they have personal experience with abortion: “I hope if they’ve had an abortion, they’ll feel a sense of community, and that anyone who needs an abortion in future won’t feel so alone. I hope it encourages people to share their own experiences, and I hope it will make other people more understanding. I also hope everyone will wet themselves laughing.”

A Womb of One’s Own is at The Space from 15th-19th August.