Cherwell

“The play-text should never have been selected for performance”

As we process from a drizzly English evening into the Michael Pilch Studio, we enter a charming new world. Director Catherine Dimitroff hands us a programme which is designed to resemble an invitation to the wedding of Tracey Marlowe and Scott McClure. They’re a winning Tennessee twosome (she works for Pepsi you know), and it’s the summer of 1993. An elegant and detailed bedroom set (designed by Mira Liu) will house the action, which never directly features the happy couple—instead the focus is upon five young bridesmaids, who’ve managed to escape the festivities, and who differ greatly in their outlooks upon life. They are linked by only two things: a dislike of the bride, and a common experience of sex and attention from one Tommy Valentine (who also doesn’t feature). In a comedy of pinball movements between bed and vanity, vanity and window, the five women reveal, conceal and dispute their vulnerabilities to create, according to co-director Lara Marks, “a strong sense of female solidarity”.

The problem is with the foundation on which that solidarity is built—it is startlingly out of date. A large majority of the conversation centres upon the characters’ experiences with men, and the companionship which they build throughout the play is based upon a shared oppositional stance and little else. The trouble with this is that it necessarily complicates any attempt to individuate the women, and its result is an unhappy stereotyping that is unfortunately evident in this production. The actors all teeter on the edge of melodrama as they steer their characters around the stage, blending exaggerated gestures with weak southern accents and struggling to convince anyone that they are forming genuine emotional connections. The comic timing switch is stuck resolutely in the ‘off’ position, meaning that the cast generate fewer laughs than the ostensibly funny play-text caters for.

It is to be noted, however, that this was an opening night, and each individual performance improves as time progresses. During the interval the cast remain on stage in silent conversation, a directorial innovation which is effective in maintaining the play’s unity of time and establishing continuity between acts. The second act features the emergence of Mindy, played with real nuance by Lucia Proctor-Bonbright, the strongest performer by some distance (and deserving of a larger role). Things also become decidedly more serious, as a revelation is made which brings the play onto a discussion of more topical matters.

The point I have been approaching is this: most of the problems with this production reside in the play-text itself, which should never have been selected for performance. The female identity which it celebrates is crude, caricatured and, most troublingly, based upon assumptions which border upon being prescriptive, and would seem only to entrench the divides which the play laments. Contemporary feminism is certainly not problem-free, (nor does it comprise only one outlook), but it is not prescriptivist, and most consider this its strength. This play, sadly, never really leaves the past in which it is set.