The excerpt of Lady in the Sheets that I was treated to was brief, but packed in a generous bounty of tones, themes, and moods.
This ambitious new piece of writing takes stories of sexual oppression and violence, and builds a comedy around them. This combination always brings risks of insensitivity, inauthenticity, and reductiveness. But Lady in the Sheets tackles this head-on, drawing on the collective experience of the cast of four women to create a shockingly honest and real-feeling window into a life not often shown in Oxford’s theatres.
This play has some absolutely hilarious moments. This tightens the tension and discomfort you will feel as the characters quickly switch to stories of knives and orgasms – “God bless that fucking knife!”. One actor, Charithra Chandran, tells me that audience members can expect to laugh out loud or feel very uncomfortable, but either way it will be an intense experience. “We’ve achieved our aim if people come out and say what just happened?” Charithra tells me.
My impression is that this reconciliation of humour – and it is funny – with the anxieties of sexual violence strikes an uneasy but effective balance. If the balance tips slightly in one direction, it is on the laughter side. Cast member Taiwo Ayebola described the play as “the best way to beat the 5th week blues”, which encouraged me that there will be ample material to help me laugh away my tears.
I ask the cast what they feel will be the biggest gamble they are taking with this production. They tell about their collaborative writing process, starting out without a fixed script, and building it up from their experiences. Each performance will be unique, they say, with elements of improvisation. This will reflect life – one of the strengths of the play, but in life things do seem to go wrong at the worst possible times.
The details of the play were largely written in this collaborative manner, but it hangs loosely on the framework of a new translation of Tutta Casa, Letto, e Chiesa by Italian feminist playwright Franca Rame. Rame’s strong, funny, personal writing has often been overlooked by the theatre world (often in favour of her husband and frequent collaborator, Nobel laureate Dario Fo). It is exciting that this work will be given a new lease of life in a contemporary experimental adaptation.
This would be enough to make Lady in the Sheets stand out as unusual in the Oxford theatre scene – worth seeing because you can be sure it will be different from the last student production you saw. The production distinguishes itself further by highlighting the talents of a very diverse cast and crew: the majority of the cast are women of colour, and the director, producer and members of the crew are also predominantly people of colour. The play showcases relationships between women of different backgrounds in nuanced ways, bringing together first-generation immigrant characters and later generations, with the resulting culture clash not combative but fruitful. The diversity of the cast again mirrors life, and brings to the stage more that is too rarely seen in our theatres.
Lady in the Sheets looks like it will be a short, sharp, wild ride. Chaotic, hilarious, and uncomfortable – you will leave with dick pics in your eyes and Grease song parodies ringing in your ears, wondering what just happened?
I asked the cast for any last points they wanted to make before I set off to write this preview, and was told “We love Beyonce! And we hope people will fall crazy in love with this play”. A bold comparison to invite – I would suggest you try to see for yourself whether it was justified.
Lady in the Sheets is playing at the Michael Pilch studio, Wednesday to Saturday of 5th week.