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Posts Tagged ‘Ruth Sheen’

This takes Kat Banyard’s book Equality Illusion as it’s starting point and it’s title is a swipe at Robin Thicke’s sexist, misogynistic song of the same name. I hadn’t read the book or heard the song, but I’m glad I went to see this.

Eight excellent actresses, including Clare Skinner, Ruth Sheen, Sinead Matthews & Byrony Hannah, perform on an unfeasibly steep and high white staircase. They start by listing stereotypical descriptions of woman that you often hear in the media and move on to show typical scenes of sexism, misogyny and objectification of women in film & TV, advertising, fashion, music…..well, in the modern world really. It’s a smorgasbord of scenes and soundbites which add up to a stimulating, challenging and thought-provoking 75 minutes.

You might have expected it to be preachy or heavy, but it’s entertainingly presented, which makes it all the more powerful. There are some lovely moments which use humour to make a point, and others which have you squirming in disgust. I consider myself a feminist, but even I began to question some of my attitudes. It’s a clever way to present the issues and does so with as much attitude as the attitudes it challenges.

The text is by playwright Nick Payne (a man and a feminist), the design (the scale of which surprises you as soon as you enter The Shed) by Bunny Christie and the inventive staging by Carrie Cracknell. It helps to have such a fine cast (who have also shaped the piece). In adition to the four I’ve already mentioned, there’s Susannah Wise, Lorna Brown, Michaela Coel (who adds her poetry) and Marion Bailey, who’s turn as a male theatre director brings the house down whilst underlining the point brilliantly.

It seems to me this is what The Shed set out to do – present something different and challenging – and it succeeds in doing so.

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It’s hard to believe that this excellent new play comes from the same pen as my 2011 Turkey of the Year, Knot of the Heart! This uber-realistic and authentic piece is a huge contrast with the other’s implausibility. As playwright David Eldridge hails from the area in which it is set, I suspect this time he’s writing from experience – and it shows.

Len is dying of prostate cancer and we’re in the living room of his home (in Basildon, obviously) where a bedside vigil is in progress – sister Doreen (who lives with Len) & her son Barry (for whom Len was a father figure) and Len’s best mate Ken; neighbour Pam is on tea duty. We’re soon joined by estranged sister Maureen who won’t talk to her sister (and vice versa) directly. The family feud is revealed but not understood. Doreen is further upset when it becomes obvious that Ken knows more about Len’s wishes than she does.

We move on to the wake, joined by Barry’s wife Jackie and Maureen’s daughter Shelley & her boyfriend. Shelley is the one member of the family who escaped to university. She became a teacher and returned to the East End where the family originated and where she now lives with boyfriend Tom, who’s own escape was in the opposite direction from his investment banker dad. The family feud is further fueled by the reading of a letter from Len laying out the highlights of his will, but we still don’t understand its origin. We finally flash back 18 years where the circumstances of the rift are at last revealed.

This is a very believable family story, but the play has at least two more layers. It shows the late 20th century exodus from the East End via inner Essex towns like Romford to places like Basildon even further away. We glimpse the reasons for the moves and attitudes that accompanied them. Furthermore, it explores how the political changes of the last 30 years have impacted these particular working class families. I lived and worked in Essex for 18 years during this period and it oozes authenticity. The family story also resonates with me!

The theatre has been reconfigured for Dominic Cooke’s pitch perfect production, with the audience on two sides and two levels. Though this does provide a bit of a bear pit for the family exchanges (well, from where I was sitting anyway), I’m not sure it was worth the trouble and expense.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Linda Bassett and Ruth Sheen are both terrific as the sisters, both in estrangement and closeness. Lee Ross brilliantly conveys the complex set of emotions Barry experiences – living with the family feud, his hinted financial troubles and Jackie’s more overt desperation for her own home and child (superbly played by Debbie Chasen). Peter Wight’s conveys that special relationship of ‘the best mate’ with a nice touch of old man letch.

It owes something to Mike Leigh (and there are a couple of Leigh regulars in the cast and a reference to his most famous play), but it’s an original, well structured and deeply rewarding play which will undoubtedly feature in the list of 2012’s best and another must-see at the Royal Court.

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