The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted
by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others
by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review
the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.
Hand Tied Behind Us
Old Vic Spring 2021
The Old Vic has put online a collection of four short (15-25 minute) monologues for women under an umbrella title that suggests lives united by having to fight the odds. With four separate writers and four separate performers, there are both variety of tone and approach and a unifying theme of determination.
The office worker played by Jill Halfpenny in Ella Hickson's 'Betsy' is staggering under the weight of the general greyness of modern urban life – dreary job, painful commute, petty annoyances, empty house. Two potential escapes – a week in Italy and a meeting with the woman of her dreams – seem to offer hope, only for the first to be spoiled and the second taken from her.
Ella Hickson's strengths as a writer have always been in description and characterisation, and the evocation of both despair and hope is moving. But the story doesn't really go anywhere, leaving the actor unable to find a satisfying ending.
Similarly all-but-plotless is Maxine Peake's 'Contactless', in which Siobhan McSweeney plays a convict on what she is somewhat surprised to find is the anticlimactic day of her release. Four years inside have exhausted her ability to be particularly angry – at, say, the way she was framed for the crime – or excited – at, say, the prospect of returning to a freedom with very little to offer.
The title refers to one of the most trivial insults of being an ex-con – she can't have a debit card – but the overall message is that it is the trivial deprivations that are soul-destroying.
The most dramatically effective of the pieces, in that the character undergoes a real psychological and emotional journey, is Kit De Waal's 'Imagine That.' The woman played by Flo Wilson lives on a sink estate, holds down two jobs to try to stay afloat, and copes with personal tragedy.
Believably, she has little energy left over for the sort of petition-circulating, demonstration-organising and vote-encouraging of a neighbour whose activities amuse her. But we gradually see that she shares many of her friend's values and hopes, and she gradually works herself up to being ready to join in the current crusade.
Most entertaining of the four is 'Mother's Little Helper 1963' by Jeanette Winterson, in which Celia Imrie recalls with wry cynicism that the birth control pill and Valium appeared around the same time, the one offering women the freedom to enjoy their sexuality and the other doping them up so they wouldn't have any.
Tennyson's Lady Of Shalott is evoked as an image of how, one way or another, women were kept apart from full engagement with reality. But a very funny account of a virgin trying to buy condoms in the early 1960s threatens to steal the show, and some awkwardly tacked-on complaints about unequal pay and the like further dissipate the focus.
All four performers present fully developed characterisations, though a couple rely on scripts. The recordings, onstage before audiences, are excellent.
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