The Yellow Wallpaper

Child birth, for many centuries, has been a taboo subject in many human cultures, including Western Europe. Pregnant people in the medieval and early modern periods were expected to spend months away from the rest of society with the custom of ‘lying-in’, where they could only be attended by other women. Child birth and motherhood have been shaped and re-shaped by the often reductive structures of patriarchy, a way of controlling women in a period when they are at their most vulnerable. Yet, even the counter-narrative that has arisen from recent shows like One Born Every Minute and Yorkshire Midwives paints a wholly positive and uplifting picture of the process of bringing new human life into the world. It is, in many respects, a polarising issue, with often very little room for nuance. As I have watched many of my peers take their first steps into pregnancy and parenthood, I have become increasingly aware of the waves of toxic positivity that pervade discussions of motherhood and having babies. The animosity exhibited by some towards how others choose to give birth and raise their children is truly shocking, and increasingly it plays into the dehumanising trope of the sainted mother figure. A mother must be perfect; if she is anything less – i.e. if she exhibits any fallible human qualities – she is a monster. There is an apparent lack of compassion and empathy for mothers just at a time when they need it most, because child birth is, for many, an incredibly traumatic experience. The changes that a person’s body goes through in order to grow and then give birth to a baby are huge and completely out of the conscious control of the person going through it. So when some of those changes go wrong, it can be truly devastating. Dumb Blonde Theatre’s production of The Yellow Wallpaper explores this devastation with frightening effect.

Adapted from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story, The Yellow Wallpaper follows a young woman, I (played by Tiffany Rhodes), in the aftermath of the difficult birth of her son, Harry. Having recently moved to a large, old house in the country, I has been confined to a single room in order to recuperate from the birth and to build her maternal bond with her newborn child. Attended by her doctor husband, John (played by Russell Eccleston), child nanny, Mary, and John’s overbearing sister, Jennie (both played by Ebony Cassie), we watch as I’s frayed psyche deteriorates as she is consumed by her growing psychosis and obsession with the strange, patterned yellow wallpaper that covers the room of her confinement.

This is a beautifully managed and perfectly disturbing adaptation of Perkins Gilman’s work. Clearly influence by horror tropes – which are enhanced by Harry Miller’s masterful sound design – this is a show explicitly about postpartum psychosis. This somewhat lesser known mental health condition is very rarely discussed in the mainstream, and I myself had only heard of it after Adele spoke of her friend’s experience of the condition in 2018. Psychosis, like many mental illnesses, is generally misunderstood and rarely discussed, and when combined with the cultural weighted role of the mother, it is a truly terrifying condition. But what writer and director Emily Malloy does with this play is use the narrative’s horror genre to explore this taboo illness. For me, that is what good horror is – a vehicle in which to explore these difficult subjects that are more earthly in their terror than supernatural or demonic. Tiffany Rhodes’ achingly fragile and fevered performance as I is truly incredible to watch, and the handling of her crumbling sanity is beautifully carried off. Equally, Russell Eccleston brings out the juxtaposing complexities of John’s character with brilliant skill; the subtleties of his coercive and abusive behaviour are spine chillingly effective and in no way overplayed. Ebony Cassie’s turn as Mary and Jennie brings an added layer of insidiousness, both highlighting the discrepancies of I’s postpartum treatment and the disorienting strangeness of I’s confined world. The final reveal of the artifice of the play’s setting leaves its audience with the unsettling sense of wondering whether any of what I had experienced was real, drawing us into the creeping paranoia of her delusion. This is a challenging piece to watch with its emotionally disturbing subject matter, but it is a powerful adaptation of one of North American’s most chilling short stories.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

how to live a jellicle life: life lessons from the 2019 hit movie musical ‘cats’

I will freely – though somewhat nervously – admit that I am not a huge musical fan. This seems like something akin to sacrilege within the theatre world. Many who work within the industry, it seems, began their love affair with the arts through the medium of musicals. Trips to see a big West End show often bookmark the chapter of an artist or theatre fan’s blossoming adoration for the art form, but that never happened for me. Musicals as a theatre and narrative format has never held a burning candle in my heart, but that isn’t to say I hate them. They’re not my forte, but I appreciate the artistry, and I do enjoy film adaptations of musicals; West Side Story always brings me to tears and Chicago was a formative awakening for my young, queer self. Yet, I am seemingly in the minority of people who has never ventured to see the 2019 adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. This film was, in many respects, a cultural ‘moment’ for 2019, and while I have never seen it, you’d have to have been living under a rock not to be aware of the impact this film had on the cultural consciousness. So in going to see Awkward Production’s new creation, how to live a jellicle life: life lessons from the 2019 hit movie musical ‘cats’, I felt like perhaps I was finally engaging with this cinematic phenomenon in a way that I had been unable to way back in the pre-pandemic world.

Written and performed by Linus Karp, how to live a jellicle life takes us through the many qualities it takes to be a jellicle creature and how we can apply these to our every day lives. Conceived in the format of a Ted Talk spoof, Karp proposes his thesis argument through that wondrous medium of presentation making, the PowerPoint. Punctuated with moments of dance, choreographed by Sam Carlyle, and a satirical ‘fake’ intermission, how to live a jellicle life immerses its audience in the non-sensical, bonkers world of T.S. Eliot, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tom Hooper’s creation, introducing us to its cast of jellicle felines in a way that is approachable for both established fans and newcomers to the world of Cats. The enigma of what it is to be ‘jellicle’ is demystified through the hilariously animated slides, and there is a sense that in simply watching the show, we the audience have become a little more jellicle.

This is a brilliantly funny love-letter-come-satire of the 2019 movie, Cats. Karp’s humour moves between the surreal and the self aware with masterful ease, and coupled with Joseph Martin’s tech and production support, the sparse style of the show perfectly accentuates the cognisant satire of the piece. Alison Carlyle’s costume design is a beautiful call back to the iconic costumes of the original stage production of Lloyd Webber’s musical – the filmed version of which is seared into my memory from watching during many rainy school breaks – and the nostalgia of the PowerPoint presentation design, with its use of stock images, animated text and Comic Sans font, is a perfectly pitched piece of Millennial/Gen Z humour. Silliness abounds within how to live a jellicle life and it is a true joy to experience – a purrfect comedic concoction!

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2

Submission

I love dark theatre. Theatre that wades into the murkier aspects of human experience, that is challenging and nuanced in its examination of cultural taboos fascinates me. Yet, when it comes to the examination of cruelty and violence through a moralistic lens, things can become tricky. Humanity’s propensity towards violence and war has shaped much of our history. For many of us, our history education is split into chapters of the numerous wars and battles that have been fought over the centuries, and given the male dominance at play within the politics that drive these events, it wouldn’t be completely unfair to say that violence is so often associated with masculinity. Indeed, within the patriarchal binary of the masculine and the feminine, femininity is traditionally aligned with passivity. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule – some of the most famous women in history (Elizabeth Báthory, Boudicca, Joan of Arc) are remembered because of their “unfeminine” association with violence – but the fact that they are exceptional is precisely what makes them memorable. Even now, the idea of women being cruel and physically violent is shocking to many of us and the examination of such characters can be very unsettling as it brings into question many deep held cultural assumptions about gender. In their new play, Submission, Black Dog Productions tackle the question of how far people, particularly women, are willing to go in order survive.

Written by company co-founder, Alicia Pollard, and directed by Tiffany Rhodes, Submission introduces us to the grim confinement of a mysterious room in which two young women are trapped. From the get go, Girl (Ebony Cassie Corrick) and Baby (Alicia Pollard) are forced to engage in increasingly barbaric puzzles which, if they fail to solve, will result in death or electrocution via the shock collars they are locked into. Neither woman can remember their identity before their entry into this chamber of horrors, and when a young man, Caspar (Russell Eccleston), is thrown into the mix, the paranoia these women face mounts to a climax of horrifying violence.

It is a concept that many horror films have tackled, and indeed, the writing is self aware in its connection to movies such as Saw and Cube. The psychological toll and horror of these characters’ situation is beautifully captured by the actors, with Ebony Cassie Corrick and Alicia Pollard bringing some tour-de-force performances as Girl and Baby; Corrick’s determination and vulnerability as Girl is countered expertly by Pollard’s brittle and unnerving portrayal as Baby. Tiffany Rhodes brilliantly plays with the claustrophobia of the play’s setting, moving her actors like chess pieces in the grimy, bone-chillingly bleak room that is these characters’ prison cell. Yet, as the violence unfolds and the sadistic manipulation at play is revealed, Submissions final moments don’t quite deliver the satisfying deconstruction of the horror sub-genre it inhabits. What sets this piece a part is its focus on the women in it. So often in these narratives, women characters are reduced to the archetype of the victim and are not afforded the emotional complexity of their male counterparts. They lack the light and shade of morality that many male characters in horror are afforded, and while Submission attempts to subvert this, the characters are not given the space in which to reveal the depth of these complexities. It felt somewhat as if too much time had been afforded to the horror of the situation rather than the psychological subtexts at play between the characters. It is a well crafted piece of horror, but one that does not quite break the mould.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Fish Cage

Identity is something of an enigma. It is both mercurial and solid, changing and eternal. It is shaped by the factors that influence our environments, by the events that happen in our lives and the communities we grow up in. Identity is both shaped by and in spite of the culture and history that surrounds us, and yet, parts of our identity are utterly innate and predetermined. With recent and ongoing cases such as the murder of Sarah Everard and the Plymouth shooting bringing the insidious influence of toxic masculinity into the spotlight, there are questions to be asked about what it means to be a man in the 21st Century. How has the performance of masculinity been shaped through our cultural history, and how sustainable are these traditionally gendered ideals in a world that demands equality across gender, race and sexuality? It is this questioning of identity that forms the crux of the intense drama within Greedy Pig Theatre Company’s new full length play, The Fish Cage.

Written by Douglas Murdoch and directed by Lex Kaby, The Fish Cage places itself in a Black Mirror-esque world where criminal surveillance technology has reached new heights with the invention of heat map tracking software, Recognition. But of course, with every new technological breakthrough comes the counter-tech, and in this Orwellian setting, the best way for a criminal to hide from the authorities is in the consciousness of another person. This is where we meet introverted nerd, Connor (played by Patrick James Withey), the play’s protagonist – or rather, joint protagonist – because it is Connor, or rather Connor’s body, that must play host to the consciousness of the bombastic criminal, Fish. As Connor, his older brother Ryan (Njeko Katebe) and Ryan’s girlfriend Ruby (Lorna Durham) are thrown into this madcap world of mind-transference and shadowy organisations, things only get darker as Fish makes a shocking discovery about the young man whose body he is now trapped within.

The Fish Cage is a real masterclass in writing within the genre of the thriller. With all its twists and turns and spine-tinglingly satisfying reveals, Murdoch’s writing sores to brilliant heights with the precise and measured performances of the cast. Patrick James Withey shines in the Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde role of Connor and Fish, with Kaby’s tight direction beautifully bringing out the light and shade within Withey’s extended monologue-come-duologues; the switches in physicality and vocal energy between Withey’s two characters are utterly seamless. Njeko Katebe exudes fraternal warmth as the protective older brother Ryan, whose misplaced sympathy is all the more painful and frustrating as Lorna Durham’s Ruby counters and questions her boyfriend’s trust in his brother. As Tiffany Rhodes enters the scene in the play’s second act as Alice, she brings with her a sumptuous reinvigoration of energy and intrigue, and Rhodes’ performance is magnificent in its layers of rage, pain and dark humour. As is characteristic of any Greedy Pig production, the set for The Fish Cage is wonderfully detailed and naturalistic, allowing for Cara Hood’s lighting design in the opening scene to function as its own cast of characters; indeed, the show’s opening is utterly brilliant in translating expositional dialogue into a visually compelling piece of theatre. This is a finely executed show that hits all the beats of a crime thriller in all the right places, and examines the pressing topics of toxic masculinity and male violence towards women with the allegorical flare of a truly great piece of science-fiction.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2

Shirley Valentine

As theatres begin to tentatively reopen for live performances, there has been much discussion within the theatre community about the types of shows being programmed for many venues’ reopening seasons. The understandable anxiety around ticket sales and how to best guarantee optimum audience attendance has been thick in the air, and for many, there has been a return to classic, tried and tested theatre favourites. So the decision by the Alma Tavern Theatre to reopen their doors with Willy Russell’s iconic one-hander, Shirley Valentine, seemed a very shrewd and savvy choice. While other venues have chosen big hitters like Shakespeare for their post-lockdown programmes – which will always have its guaranteed and ardent following of theatre goers – it was somewhat refreshing to see a show that focuses its narrative lens upon a working class, middle aged woman. This focus, coupled with the play turning thirty five this year, offered a theatrical bouquet as enticing as Shirley’s own glass of wine.

Directed by Adam Elms with Anna Friend performing as the titular heroine, Schoolhouse Productions stays true to Russell’s original text, keeping it placed in 1980s Liverpool. The kitchen set is deceptively simple – which even included a working hob upon which Shirley cooks a real egg and chips supper from scratch – with details such as contemporary table cloths and place mats situating Shirley’s humble domicile beautifully within the period. Friend’s performance exudes the warmth and humour of Russell’s text, and Friend does a brilliant job of embodying Shirley; she is every bit the endearing friend with her quips and amusing anecdotes, and when the depth of her loneliness is brought to light, your heart truly aches for this character. It is so difficult for an actor to shoulder the mantel of a role that has been made famous by a particular performer – for many of us, Pauline Collins just is Shirley Valentine – but Anna Friend brings her own flavour to the character, portraying this complex woman with the skilled ease of a seasoned performer.

While certain aspects of the script are rather dated in their attitudes – Shirley’s animosity towards feminism is somewhat jarring for a 2021 audience, though many still share in Shirley’s misconceptions – there is still so much about this play that speaks to life in Britain today. The portrayal of loneliness, isolation and loss of self identity is particularly resonant in our present COVID world, and with studies having shown that many heterosexual women in relationships over lockdown returned to the gendered roles of the classic 1950s housewife, Shirley’s frustration at her family life is all the more impactful. We are still living in a society that upholds many of the misogynistic and gendered bigotries that were present in 1986, when the play was first premiered at the Everyman in Liverpool, and it is fascinating to see where we have and have not changed as a society in those interim thirty five years. Schoolhouse Productions brings these tricky, multi-layered cultural dialogues to life with this excellent revival of Shirley Valentine, and as theatre reopening productions go, this is a highly accomplished piece of theatre.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2