What do you get when you put 17 women on stage performing a work primarily made from overheard gossip? More drama than you bargained for, and a very entertaining night out.
The Women is a work by Clare Boothe Luce, inspired by the gossip-consumed lives of Manhatten’s elite in the 1930’s. Revolving primarily around the marriage of Mary and Steven Haines, Luce uses this “monogamous” relationship to explore how destructive and powerful a rumour can be, whilst also providing an acute insight into the complex relationships between women and their girlfriends.
The opening sequence alone sets the scene from the get go, with one actress inviting the audience into the party scene ahead. Each actress offers a little piece of gossip as they enter and cross the space as all of the actors talk at once, creating a cacophony of unsubstantiated hearsay, effectively establishing the tone, the pace and the attitude to expect for the duration of the show.
Following the opening scene, the crux of the story picks up at the home of Sylvia Fowler, where the audience are exposed to the true meaning of ‘ladies who lunch’. Christie New as Sylvia Fowler led this slightly dysfunctional, yet highly entertaining social event. Her comic timing was lovely, her dry humour particularly entertaining, and the mix of snobbery with genuine care balanced nicely.
Georgia Rodgers was endearing as Peggy, Sandy Sharma a hoot as Edith, and Antonia Zappia levelled all of their energies effectively with her interpretation of Nancy.
By the time Catherine Davies entered the scene as the ‘lady of discussion’, Mary Haines, she already had the audience’s sympathy. However, her portrayal of this role superseded anything the audience could have hoped for. Never once ‘playing the victim’, Davies’s delicate and poised performance of Mary effectively explores the battle many women of the 1930’s endured – a woman’s duty and loyalty to her husband and family vs. a woman’s duty and loyalty to herself.
The only other thing that was slightly distracting was the use of props. Although it may seem like child’s play to simply hold a cigarette whilst carrying out a scene, there were many instances where it was simply treated as a “prop” without any true sense of weight or awareness of hazard. For example, these props were occasionally held carelessly close to their clothing if their hands were on their hips. Along a similar vein, as much as Sharma’s portrayal of Edith was truly delightful, she was supposedly pregnant for most of the show, however, her commitment to the full embodiment of this was questionable, and it appeared as though she relied on the actual belly to do most of the work in terms of convincing the audience of this fact.
Two of the ‘larger than life’ characters in the show were left in the very capable hands of Kate Rutherford (Countess De Lage) and Alyssa Stevenson (Crystal Allen). Rutherford’s interpretation of the Countess left the audience in stitches. Although wildly unpredictable, every time she entered the stage, Rutherford brought a new energy to scenes she was in, and exploited a variety of comic techniques to colour her performance. Stevenson’s portrayal of the show’s antagonist was very effective. Although she carried herself like Manhattan’s elite, and looked like a Hollywood star, Allen’s vocal manipulation and brash accent was a constant reminder of the ugly layer beneath the surface, whilst being wildly entertaining within itself – a truly inspired use of juxtaposition. The final scene of the show where these two confront one another about their ‘differences’ is simply heavenly, and handled particularly well without being ‘too much’. Among instances of stereotypes being played as opposed to characters being developed, Rutherford and Stevenson are to be commended on not falling into this trap also, but finding heart and truth beneath these large personalities.
Although the set is relatively simple, it is certainly effective and definitely still transports the audience into the 1930’s without any noticeable stylistic discrepancy. The lighting was also simple, but muted or with slight colour changes for transitions between scenes, accompanied by some very tasteful musical interludes and fast moving, diligent actors who made it all very seamless, and something quite lovely in itself.
Andrews’ direction of the show was wonderful. His incorporation of Brechtian techniques and direct address helped the audience find anchor points along the way – as opposed to simply drowning in gossip – and was tastefully executed. It should also be noted that the space did lend itself to being a little difficult in terms of sightlines, but was cleverly managed and staged to account for this.
Overall, The Women is a wonderful celebration of local talent and a very satisfying night at the theatre.
Written by Sophie Perkins