Encounters: Dry Ice and You're Not Like Other Girls Chrissy

Sabrina Mahfouz/Caroline Horton
Bush Theatre

Caroline Horton as Chrissy in 'You're Not Like Other Girls Chrissy'
Sabrina Mahfouz as Nina in 'Dry Ice'

Encounters is an evening of contrasting character portraits, narrative landscapes, stories fictitious and real; two talented female performers and writers embodying not only a precise and evocative physical energy, but also a subtle lyricism and penchant for storytelling.

If Caroline Horton's moving portrait of her grandmother, You're Not Like Other Girls Chrissy, is a candid exploration of personal and cultural memory in the wake of the second world war, Sabrina Mahfouz's Dry Ice is a playful, sharp excursion into the life of a stripper. As divergent and prismatic as they seem, the two plays that make-up Encounters are curious and intriguing dialogue, framing femininity in two different cultural and historical contexts.

Dry Ice is a sharp blend of theatricality and spoken word that examines, with subtle poetics and a playful aesthetic, the life of a stripper in a restrictive set of settings. Informed by Mahfouz's own experience of strip clubs, the performance glides between social critique and acute, playful humour, following a more or less linear narrative framed by a distinct set of contexts that shape Nina, the central character. From the domesticity of her and her partner's home, a pseudo-art and drug dealer, to a dinner party whose guests seem vaguely etched onstage, a curious and engaging set of characters which Mahfouz performs herself, to the strip club itself.

Mahfouz creates a cross-section into a narrative landscape rather than any top-down critiques, which makes the work fresh and unexpected, the words rippling over in heavy shots of rhythmical poetry, dissipated in a tightly woven theatrical narrative. Mahfouz herself has a keen stage presence, her bold eyes and punchy words shape-shifting as she tackles an impressive range of characters. One of the most engaging moments in the show sees her categorise different male customers that one can find in a strip club, from the sweaty-necked to the pseudo-sensitive.

It's atmospheric, architectural writing that also toys with action onstage, as Mahfouz creates a performance space in which different objects shape and contour the atmosphere. There are influences of cabaret in the theatricality with which she embodies not only Nina, but also the men and women around her. Mahfouz begins with putting on protective gear in the bathroom of her house and the image of that protection remains pervasive throughout the show, although at the same time there's an incomplete tone to the performance that feels both inquisitive and splattered. There's a potent interplay between character and narrator that sees us positioned in different structures of the narrative throughout the show, which becomes fluid, loose but at the same time punctured and punchy.

Caroline Horton's You're Not Like Other Girls Chrissy tells the tender, charming story of Christiane Horton, a woman in love with a man across the sea in the British countryside, kept apart by a mammoth war. It's a story of love, passion and courage, but also one that is disarmingly human and honest.

With poor eyesight, a charming naivety and an extraordinary energy and passion for life, Chrissy is the central character in a shape-shifting narrative underscored by playful linguistic and cultural differences between France and England woven into the landscape of the mid- to late-twentieth century. Horton not only brings the familiar character to life with insightful characterisation and theatrical flair, but also a precise physical language of mannerism and gestures. It's an encounter reliant on the frenzy of words which create such an endearingly nostalgic emotional score without falling for romantics, but also frenzy of words in personal speech patterns, a disarming humour and an elegance that pertains to both performer and character.

Chrissy's suitcases conceal miniature sets for each scene—Paris' skyline or a BBC newsroom—but this tool is surprisingly un-quaint; in fact, despite the nostalgia which underscores the performance, there is nothing lingering in the past, no rosy tints on the edges. Instead, Horton takes us on a journey both personal and historical precipitated with minute details that are surprising, engaging and fresh.

Age travels almost magically in the performance, as Horton embodies the shifting maturity and femininity of a character with such a specific personality, with a physical and linguistic confidence that avoids clichés and punches with surprising delicacy at the heart of each scene.

In both Horton and Mahfouz's work, words and structure become intertwined in accessible yet complex networks, refracting on different constructs of femininity—and feminism—through the prismatic eye of two engaging characters. There's an element of familiarity in both pieces that seems to bring them closer to us, to add a level of detail and vivacity that's rare, be it the paunchiness and wit of Mahfouz's poetic writing or the subtle lyricism of Horton's performance.

Reviewer: Diana Damian