The Vagina Monologues

Eve Ensler
Theatre Royal, Newcastle: on tour
(2003)

There were, the Theatre Royal press officer estimated, about sixteen men in the house. My observation leads me to believe that he had underestimated, but not by much: if there were more than thirty I would be very surprised. And this was a full house of 1,600.

A massive letter V covered with rows of lightbulbs stands behind three stools, two tables and three microphones. Along the font of the stage are a number of pairs of shoes. The cast - Mina Anwar, Sorcha Cusack and Alison Newman - walk on, barefoot and wearing black dresses. They perch on the stools and talk to the audience, moving from what feels like - and probably is - ad lib chat with the audience into the monologues themselves. Lights come up on the "soloists", then crossfade again into general light (and the operator got one cue badly wrong tonight, isolating the wrong soloist).

The "chat" is light and humorous and the relationship between the actresses themselves and between them and the audience is easy and increasingly close as the show goes on. When they slip into the monologues, the mood changes. The actresses become the speakers: accents, pitch, tone and body language all change, Sorcha Cusack in particular proving herself a mistress of accents, switching effortlessly from standard English to Irish to various flavours of American. As for Mina Anwar, at one point she had me convinced she was in sketch by Victoria Wood!

The timing was superb. If the secret of comedy is timing, these three have it in spades! And Alison Newman's precise timing of slight gestures and facial expressions was a joy to behold.

The performances, in fact, could not be faulted: the three manipulated the audience's feelings with ease. Humour was never far away, but there was horror, too: the piece on genital mutilation, the father blasting his "friend" who raped his young daughter with a shotgun. Pathos stands alongside the broadest humour. At one point it was too much for some of the audience to take: inappropriate laughter bubbled through part of the ouse at the description of a torn vagina after a birth. But that was stilled by the sheer force of the playing of all three actresses. It could have all gone horribly wrong at that point, but they got the situation under control and one could not but admire their professionalism.

It's an odd show, this: part anthropological (gynaecological?) study, part social study (out of all the homeless women interviewed, only one had not been molested as a child or raped as a young woman), part storytelling, part lecture, part female bonding ritual, part exorcism of male dominance. It's very theatrical, but is it theatre?

By any normal definition, the answer has to be no. Does it matter? Well, that's a matter of opinion. Do men feel excluded? Of course they do!

"The Vagina Monologues" continues at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, until Saturday 19th April, after which it goes on to the Birmingham Hippodrome, the Plymouth Theatre Royal, Poole Arts Centre, the New Victoria at Woking, the Leeds Grand, the Bristol Hippodrome, the Orchard at Dartford, the Liverpool Empire, the Swan at High Wycombe, and ends on 5th July at the Marlowe, Canterbury.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan