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

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.


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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.


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Review: Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways at The Cruising Association, Limehouse

Before last night, my only knowledge of the boating world came from a long ago family holiday on the Norfolk Broads (and if I’m totally honest, I didn’t really learn a huge amount from that). Worse, I knew nothing at all about the Women’s Training Scheme or the so-called Idle Women, who left their comfortable homes and stepped up to take charge of the working boats during World War II. And I have a feeling I may not be the only one.

Fortunately, Alarum Theatre are setting out to change that. They’re embarking on a tour with their historic boat, Tench, and an all-female crew to mark the 75th anniversary of the Idle Women by recreating their route from London to Birmingham and back via Coventry, performing at waterside venues along the way.

The double bill consists of two solo performances by writer and storyteller Kate Saffin and poet and singer-songwriter Heather Wastie, who met on Twitter in 2016 and realised their two shows went rather well together. The first, Isobel’s War, is a fictional and often very funny depiction of the arduous training scheme through the eyes of one of the recruits, while Idle Women and Judies is a collection of poems and songs inspired by, and often directly quoting, the words of the women themselves. Both give us an insight into the hard work and less than comfortable living conditions on board – but also the friendships and sense of accomplishment that the women shared.

Though not exactly your typical night at the theatre, together the two pieces make for a simple, charming and informative evening. And though the performances are quite different in format, they have one important thing in common, and that’s the obvious affection and admiration not just for the Idle Women, but for all the women from boating families who’d been quietly doing the same work for generations before the war. The enthusiasm of both ladies, who come from boating backgrounds themselves, is infectious; even someone as averse to audience participation as I am couldn’t resist joining in with the final chorus (though I wish it hadn’t been quite so catchy – it’s a difficult one to forget once you’ve learnt it).

If you don’t already know the story of the Idle Women, Alarum’s show is a fascinating introduction. If you do, it’s an enjoyable retelling and great entertainment. But it’s also a powerful reminder of the crucial role women played in keeping the country running during the war – and let’s face it, nothing brightens a gloomy Monday like a bit of girl power.

But if it was such hard work on the boats, why were they called the Idle Women? You may well ask – but I’m not the one to answer. You’ll have to see the show to find out…


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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.

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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.


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