Review: Hear Me Howl at the Old Red Lion Theatre

If you ask most children what being a grown-up looks like, chances are most would say at least some of the following: job, marriage, family, house, car, dog/cat/goldfish… That’s what society trains us to believe from a young age, so it’s no surprise that if we don’t fit into that box, we’re deemed – by both others and ourselves – to have somehow failed.

This seems particularly true in relation to the marriage and babies part, and because of the idea of a “biological clock”, it’s almost always women who take the brunt of the judgment. At my friend’s wedding a couple of years ago, as the only single member of the wedding party, I fielded questions from no less than three people (all of whom I’d only just met) as to why I was there alone – and as a bonus, a helpful reminder from the bride’s mum that I should probably get a move on.

Photo credit: Will Lepper

I feel like Jess, the character in Lydia Rynne’s Hear Me Howl, would sympathise with that experience. She’s about to turn 30, and has been in a relationship for years with a very lovable guy. So naturally she faces frequent pressure from family and friends to take the next step, whether that’s marriage or babies, because after all, she’s “not getting any younger”. The only problem is that Jess doesn’t really want to take that step, so it’s no surprise that when she discovers she’s pregnant, she freaks out quite dramatically. A week later, she’s joined a post-punk band, thrown out most of her clothes, attended her first protest and even appeared on the news – and all the while, she knows she has a huge, life-changing decision to make.

There’s plenty of humour in the one-woman show, which is beautifully performed with energy and unflinching conviction by Alice Pitt-Carter, but we’re also very aware that what we’re watching is much more than simply a woman having a meltdown. What we’re seeing is the dawning, liberating realisation not only that Jess doesn’t want to be a mother, but that she doesn’t need to be. She’s spent the last twelve years conforming to what society expects – boring job, nice boyfriend, rented flat, hair-free armpits – and is only now beginning to understand those are just a few of the options open to her.

This produces a conflicting set of emotions for the audience; it’s exhilarating to see Jess take her first steps towards figuring out who she really wants to be, but also depressing because it took a crisis – not to mention twelve years – for her to realise she even had that option. We see her grappling with the idea that not wanting a baby makes her selfish, or that she’s somehow failing in her womanly duty to continue the human race, even though she knows it wouldn’t make her happy – and to see another woman go through that turmoil is infuriating.

Photo credit: Will Lepper

Throughout the 70-minute show, director Kay Michael ensures we’re always aware of the drum kit that sits centre stage, as Jess hovers around it, her hands never far from the drumsticks she’s clearly itching to use. And when she finally takes her place behind the kit at the end of the show, she’s drumming not only for herself, but for every woman who’s ever felt unable to live the life she wants for fear of judgment. You may at this point want to use the earplugs provided at the box office; personally I wanted to experience every beat of her performance.

Hear Me Howl was performed at the Old Red Lion Theatre in September 2018. Catch it next at VAULT Festival, 30th January-3rd February.

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: Lydia Rynne and Caley Powell, Hear Me Howl

Hear Me Howl is the first project for new theatre company Lights Down Productions. The one woman show by Lydia Rynne addresses the taboo issues of abortion and a woman’s choice to remain childless, exploring the central character’s journey through her discovery of punk music.

“It’s a late coming-of-age tale following the story of Jess – played by Alice Pitt-Carter – who’s just hitting the big three oh,” explains Lydia, a member of the Soho Theatre Writers Group. “She has a job, a long term, loving boyfriend and a rented flat that’s bigger than your average garden shed. Oh, and of course she also has that pesky body clock that everyone keeps banging on about. As she approaches her milestone birthday, Jess begins to question the life she’s plummeting towards and decides to join a punk band, cos why not? Jess tells her story from behind and with the aid of a drum kit before her first gig.”

Lydia was inspired to write the play after noticing a lack of shows about women who choose not to have children: “There have been plenty of plays and books about women or couples trying desperately to conceive. And of course there is a place for these works – wanting, and then struggling, to conceive is a heartbreaking ordeal. But for every woman who is pining for a child of her own, there is a woman considering a life without children. This is, crazily, still a taboo subject. I’m also a huge advocate of women – of any age – picking up an instrument and making NOISE.

“From a young age girls are given plastic babies, prams, tiny kitchenettes with rubber sausages to fry up like a good girl. Meanwhile our male human counterparts who just happen to have a dangly bit between their legs are handed toy racing cars, railway sets, a rocket: an open highway to go any place they like, as fast as they bloody well can. Society tells us from birth that we are born with a maternal instinct that, if not acted on within our allotted time, will leave us empty and bereft of our true life purpose. The weight of this expectation is not only offensive – how many childless male actors or politicians are probed about their lack of sprogs?! – but also a huge mental drain on a gender who are already busy enough trying to achieve equality in the workplace and combat sexism on a daily basis.”

Producer Caley Powell adds, “This will be my first play with my new theatre company Lights Down Productions, and I chose it because I saw myself in the lead character of Jess. I’ve recently turned 30 and have known for a long time that I don’t want children, so seeing a play that dealt with this topic in such an open, fun way is so rare and so necessary that I immediately wanted to come on board to produce this play.

“For me Jess is so relatable, when you’re about to turn 30 you do end up having a crisis about where your life is and what it is you want from it, and have an urge to do something drastic, like join a punk band to break out of the monotony of your life. This play shows it’s never too late to make a change in your life and that through regaining control and also through the power of music you can find your voice and your power.”

Lydia met the play’s director, Kay Michael of Empty Deck Theatre, when they were in a production of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker together at Warwick University. “I had yet to ‘come out’ as a writer and still fancied myself as a physical theatre performer. As much as I loved playing varieties of goat-like creatures, making sense of the world through the written word quickly became my raison d’être. So I finally allowed Kay, one of my best mates – and conveniently a wonderful director – to take a peek. The rest is history. Or herstory…”

Caley’s involvement with the show came about more recently. “I met Kay whilst producing my previous play A Great Fear Of Shallow Living with In Tandem Theatre Company, and she got in touch in November 2017 to let me know about this play. I was in the process of setting up Lights Down Productions to produce new writing, particularly female writers, and I was looking for new projects so it seemed perfect timing!”

In developing the show, the team have spoken to women with varying opinions on having children, and have also thrown themselves into the world of punk ideology and music. “One particular book that inspired us is Viv Albertine (of punk band The Slits)’s autobiography, documenting her growing obsession with punk music in the 70s and 80s as she grows from girl to woman,” Lydia explains. “As Hear Me Howl is very much structured as a coming of age story, we have also, as a team of female creatives, interrogated our own lives as a series of lightbulb moments – questioning the people, experiences and music that we now know impacted our life choices. We then got into a garage full of instruments we’d never played before and bashed about for hours, and got some great audience feedback when we tested an extract, with accompanying drums, in a scratch night back in 2016.

“We hope Hear Me Howl will inspire discussion about the expectations we place on women to have kids. But we also want our audiences to have fun, to maybe take up drums, and to definitely dance around their kitchen like no-one’s watching.”

The play was performed as a work in progress at The Landor Space in March, and returns for a full run at the Old Red Lion Theatre this month.

With Lights Down Productions Caley’s also currently producing a new play, Shards by Catherine O’Shea. “Shards is a play about memory, architecture, relationships, dating, particle physics and swing dancing… and what happens when you throw those things at each other. We just had a reading of the play at The Playwriting Suite at Canal Cafe Theatre, and have a four-week run at a major London venue later this year.”

Hear Me Howl will be at The Old Red Lion Theatre from 18th-29th September.

To keep updated on Lights Down Productions follow @LightsDownProd or find them on Facebook