Review: HerStory 4 at Theatre N16

Guest review by Jemima Frankel

What might you expect from a feminist theatre festival at a small fringe theatre in Balham, in June 2017? What issues, events, people, stereotypes – laws, even – might compel feminist theatre makers to, well, make theatre right now? The more cynical amongst us might expect a hipster-infused horde of angry, “snowflake” millenials shouting loudly about the “pale stale male”.  What they would find, however, is a potent and welcome remedy to such limiting cynicism. HerStory, founded by Nastazja Somers, was born out of frustration at the repetitive, singular storyline of female characters in theatre and wider society. She invites feminists to perform work that platforms the untold stories – the real faces of intersectionality – that are so routinely trampled over in the charge for more palatable voices. HerStory does not just demand our attention; it grabs it, with consent, by the pussy.

The second of two nights at HerStory 4 (the big sister of the HerStorys 1, 2 and 3 in preceding years) was a showcase of eight richly varied solo performances. We heard the female voice on topical issues such as abortion, domestic abuse, child rape, LGBTQ issues, sexual harassment, social media, war and… Iranian mothers. What shot through the hurt, the anger, the raw and gutting sadness of several of these stories was the resounding support buzzing from the audience. Huge cheers, belly laughs and tenterhooked-gasps filled the air – testament, of course, to the quality of the performers who took to the stage.

As expected, some of the work made emotional viewing. Dannie-Lu Carr’s Just Another C*nt told the incredibly moving story of a toxic relationship with an alcoholic man who encouraged an abortion. The Twilight Zone by Suzy Gill tackles cultural discrimination and homophobia, as a young woman’s Muslim girlfriend is called away again to fight for the American army in Iraq. In one of Tolu Agbelusi’s powerful spoken word performances she spoke of the rape of a seven-year-old girl at the grabbing, angry hands of two young boys. In Mission Abort, directed by Claire Stone and performed by Therese Ramstedt, the Pro-Life words of Donald Trump – “there must be some form of punishment” – seared through the graphic re-enactment of a painful and intrusive abortion. The audience was left open-mouthed and wide-eyed, shocked into reflective silence before roaring applause acknowledged the bravery and resilience of these women.

Humour rippled in welcome and powerful moments through the evening. Amanda Holiday’s The Art Poems took artworks by diverse female painters as the inspiration for witty words, and the ridicule at the price of a handbag (that she will use as a hat, thank you very much). Social Media Suicide by Clare McCall showed us the behind-the-scenes of a very special, perfectly set up, live streamed 27th birthday party, at which she – for the benefit of you lucky viewers – was going to kill herself after much cam-girl style foreplay. The show goes out, quite literally, with a bang as the likes come rolling in. Shahbanu brilliantly performed by Lydia Bakelmun (and written, directed and produced by Melina Namdar, Anna Jeary and Penny Babakhani) revisits the childhood of a girl raised in London to an overbearing Iranian mother and English father. In the nostalgic tales of Iranian princes and (always – eye roll) beautiful princesses, we unravel the feeling of loss, displacement and desperate need to reconnect to heritage and culture. Roxanne Carney’s I’m the Hero of This Story tickled the audience with Tinder one-liners and the jaw-dropping realisation that these were lifted from real conversations with real men, probably within about five miles of you.

The Museum of Women, the poignant closing poem of Tolu Agbulesi’s set, speaks of the great women “quietly shaping” her. “This body is a monument of many women; I was not built alone,” she speaks; a perfect beacon of support and solidarity that resonated with the diverse mix of men and women in the audience. As the audience left chattering and tweeting, I was reminded once again of the power of performance – if not as a way to change the world, then as a way to get the conversation well and truly started.

Follow @HerstoryFTF for details of upcoming events and performances, as they move to a more central London location.

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: Herstory at Theatre N16

Following the recent Women’s Marches across the globe, Piers Morgan took to Twitter to complain about “the creeping global emasculation of my gender by rabid feminists” – thereby revealing his ignorance of not only what the marches were all about, but more broadly what feminism even is. But unfortunately, he’s not alone in thinking that being a feminist must necessarily mean that you’re anti-men.

Maybe Piers and co should get themselves down to Theatre N16 in Balham some time and check out the Herstory feminist theatre festival. If they did, they’d find not a horde of hysterical women screaming at an audience of cowering males, but a room buzzing with mutual support and a passionate desire to make a positive change.


Which is not to say there isn’t anger too; in fact it was anger that inspired Nastazja Somers to start Herstory last year, to say to the theatre industry and society in general, “We’ve had enough.” But Herstory channels that rage into promoting women, not tearing down men – and it does so through a varied programme of topical and courageous work. The first of two nights at Herstory 3 featured eight such pieces, the majority of them solo performances, each representing the female voice on issues including politics, race, dating and mental health.

Not surprisingly, some of the work featured made difficult viewing. In the haunting Promise by Sarah Milton, an occasion that should be joyful – the birth of a baby – is revealed in fact to be a dark tale of child exploitation. All the Colours by Davina Cole is a heartbreaking story of a mother’s struggle to support herself and her son after fleeing the war in Sierra Leone to seek refuge in the UK. Donald Trump makes a (perhaps inevitable, and you can guess in what context) appearance in Grab by Pussy Patrons, and Isabelle Stokes’ Imprints concludes with a graphic account of sexual assault, powerfully performed by Francesca Burgoyne.

There’s a lot of laughter too, though – whether it’s at Sophia Del Pizzo’s fluctuating accent in Assmonkey: In Conversation, Julie Cheung-Inhin’s patient explanation of the geography of East Asia in No More Lotus Flower, or the anxious attempts of Katie Arnstein to write a feminist anthem in Bicycles and Fish: A Girl’s Guide to Feminism. Yet even these stories are shot through with frustration and emotion, as they tackle the devastating impact of anxiety and social pressures on young women, the racial stereotyping faced by actors of East Asian descent, and the shame of a young waitress forced by her manager to ask a breastfeeding mother to leave.

Amidst all this hurt and anger, Julie Vallortigara’s Welcome Home, a movement-based call for authenticity and self-expression, shone like a beacon of hope, summing up beautifully what the festival is all about. And despite the difficult topics explored across the course of the evening, the overwhelming mood as we made our exit was one of optimism. There are many challenges that are and will continue to be faced by women across the globe, but Herstory and its contributors are facing those challenges head on – and the sell-out audience and enthusiastic response to every single performance prove they’re not alone. Sorry, Piers.

Follow @HerstoryN16 on Twitter for details of future festivals.

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… 😉