Ladyfriends is a show that would benefit from a programme; not just to credit the two actors but also to clarify the intentions behind the play.
Author and director Clodagh Chapman is critical of the glossy approach taken in TV dramatisations, usually broadcast on Sunday evenings, of true-life gay stories. Safe to assume, therefore, Ladyfriends is intended as a irreverent, even radical method of staging the rumoured lesbian affair between suffragettes Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst.
It is possible there were some technical issues on the first night of the production. The show started late, and photographs were not projected onto a screen but displayed on the just about visible screen of a laptop. Yet the deliberately ramshackle, even Gonzo style in which the play is staged gives the impression of a work in progress rather than a finished product. At one point, when the laptop screen froze, one wondered if it was a genuine glitch or intended as a joke. It was hard to be sure.
Clodagh Chapman stuffs the play with ideas and some very funny gags but does not draw them together or provide a focus. The play opens with a diary entry / correspondence read aloud in the manner of the period then jumps to imagine the initial meeting between the early 20th century lovers in which they converse as if in the present day. The atmosphere is contemporary—the cast are dressed in modern casual, rather than period, clothes and perform Izzy Odelola’s ambient electronic score and a classic power anthem live on keyboards and guitar.
This contrast between a restrained period setting and a more open, boisterous contemporary approach continues throughout the play. At one point, the characters speak in an over-ornate grand manner and the next they are belting out a cover of Alanis Morissette’s "You Oughta Know". Brief biographical details and criticisms of the lifestyles of Kenney and Pankhurst (a willingness to form relationships in the hope of securing cushy holidays or just someone to do the laundry) are sandwiched into the text. A catty modern vernacular description, by a jealous Pankhurst, of another of Kenney’s rumoured lovers is hilarious.
It is possible the framework of the play is a pair of actors workshopping ideas for a film about the rumoured love affair between the two women or the real-life Kenney and Pankhurst taking part in a reality-style TV show. There is evidence to support both possibilities. A camera tripod is clearly visible, and the operator frequently steps forward to mark scenes. The characters often fluff lines and offer notes on each other’s performance and one ends scenes by shouting "cut". Yet towards the climax, one of the participants withdraws from the project—leaving the stage as if being voted off the show.
Ladyfriends, while full of ideas, lacks a conclusion to draw them together and give the audience a clear indication of the central viewpoint. The absence of focus limits the impact of the play; as the objectives are unclear, it is hard to assess how well they are fulfilled.
Reviewer: David Cunningham