Women, Power and Politics
Marie Jones, Moira Buffini, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Lucy Kirkwood, Joy Wilkinson, Zinnie Harris, Bola Agbaje, Sam Holcroft, Sue Townsend
Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn
Following the overwhelming success of The Great Game: Afghanistan a year ago (returning on 23 July), Nicolas Kent has obviously got the taste for cycles of short plays. For this new series, he has asked his collaborator from that project, Indhu Rubasingham, to direct all nine plays, which must have been a real challenge. Pleasingly, with the assistance of her versatile cast, she seems well up to the task of bringing such a wide range of theatre to her audience.
The subject matter of Women, Power and Politics is summed up nicely by the title. For 6½ hours, including a 75-minute dinner interval, nine female playwrights plus verbatim specialist Gillian Slovo explore every aspect of the subject from the sacred to the explicitly profane.
To set the scene, designer Rosa Maggiora has painted the floor of the playing space with an image of Britannia backed by the union flag. The patriotic imagery is then repeated on the partly hidden proscenium arch.
The first part of the programme, subtitled "Then" is historical, ranging from the period of the first Elizabeth to middle years of the second, while the five plays contained in "Now" need no further explanation.
Between each play, Miss Slovo provides carefully edited extract of interviews with some of the most powerful women in British politics over the last 30 years. Between them, the likes of Shirley Williams, Ann Widdecombe and Jacqui Smith explore a variety of issues of the period from the deeply serious to the blatantly frivolous - everything from positive discrimination in selecting parliamentary candidates to the political consequences of low-cut blouses.
The Milliner and the Weaver by Marie Jones
The mini marathon gets off to a powerful start, as two suffragettes meet in Belfast in 1914. Niamh Cusack plays Henrietta, a hard-working widow with six children who has been inspired by the upper class milliner, Stella Gonet's Elspeth.
After court appearances and a rift, the two friends are reunited to talk over the past and future of their movement but also the efforts of Sir Edward Carson to fire up Ulster Protestants and foment war against the imminent prospect of Home Rule for Ireland.
Marie Jones is an experienced playwright who knows exactly what can be done in half an hour or so, turning both of her characters into highly believable people and exploring deep issues of politics, sectarianism and feminism in considerable depth.
Handbagged by Moira Buffini
After a brief Verbatim interlude from a self-important Edwina Currie, Moira Buffini creates what might be many people's worst nightmare, a play with not only the Queen portrayed simultaneously by two actresses but also a double dose of Margaret Thatcher.
With the assistance of Tom Mannion's absolutely convincing Ronald Reagan, a quartet of actresses gently explore the sometimes strained relationship between the most powerful woman in the United Kingdom and her closest competitor. It seems safest to leave readers to decide which is which.
The Lioness by Rebecca Lenkiewicz
What could have been an overly serious topic is viewed lightly by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. With the assistance of a carefully drilled Niamh Cusack, she paints an affectionate portrait of the life and extraordinary times of Queen Elizabeth I, The Lioness of the title.
This is achieved in a number of brief episodes, as the Queen first comes up against Simon Chandler playing her nosy and embarrassingly intrusive doctor, then Mannion as the heavily bearded, puritanical Scot John Knox, before falling in and out of love with Oliver Chris' smug but doomed Earl of Essex.
Throughout this short play, we get the opportunity to see a surprisingly mischievous monarch toying with her subjects, while always aware of her Majesty and personal achievements.
Bloody Wimmin by Lucy Kirkwood
It is quite an achievement to write quite such a varied if uneven play with a running time of around 30 minutes. Overall, Lucy Kirkwood has created a work that is both politically incisive and humorous.
It starts with an overly clichéd set of "Wimmin" protesting outside the Greenham Common American Air Force base. They are lesbian, boring, and wear bad clothes, to match up to the traditional image.
Bloody Wimmin only really takes off when one of the women Helen, played by Claire Cox, comes home to face her dull husband Bob (Oliver Chris). He is so unsympathetic to her cause that the pregnant protester triumphantly returns to the air base to have a child and bring him up within the mutually self-supporting community.
Where Miss Kirkwood really scores is then taking the play on a generation so that that former foetus, John Hollingworth as James, has become a grown man protesting about climate change in Blackheath. There, he is forced to face up to his own fears when sexy Sophie (Lara Rossi) grabs his limelight before making a man of him and then completing the circle by interviewing her secretly radical grandmother.
Acting Leader by Joy Wilkinson
Following the dinner break, the first play in the "Now" series attempts to explore the experiences of Margaret Beckett, the deputy leader of the Labour Party at the time that John Smith died in harness.
While Niamh Cusack (wo)manfully portrays the ultimately disappointed contender for the Labour Party leadership, Lara Rossi does a fine job of playing every other part, both male (including Prescott, Blair and a strangely silent Mandelson) and female, with the real highlight Clare Short.
The Panel by Zinnie Harris
Zinnie Harris would seem to have lost the plot, in that her play not only ignores politics in the normal sense of the word but has a cast of five, every one of whom is male.
We need not have worried, since the subject matter is very much feminist, as a tedious board room full of self-important male bores tries to select someone to fill an executive post from an all woman shortlist.
In a kind of playwriting exercise, they ring every variation of positive and negative comment on the performance and appearance of the women that they have seen.
Playing the Game by Bola Agbaje
Bola Agbaje has taken a rather different and much breezier view of politics, looking at the student variety through the eyes of a trio of young women.
The opening looks like a cross between an exercise video and a mildly pornographic music equivalent, as Amy Loughton's Akousa, "a low maintenance girl", is put through her paces by the kind of gold digging friends that nobody needs, Charlene and Jenny, respectively played by Claire Cox and Lara Rossi.
We eventually discover that Akousa is standing for president of her student union, while her friends hope to cash in if she is successful.
The comedy in the piece comes from the means that politicians (or more particularly their spin doctors) are willing to use to achieve their goals. At various times, the prospective president finds herself promoted as "a slut" and "a lesbian" before finally proving to be a canny, political opportunist who has the kind of ruthlessness that promises a successful career in parliament.
Pink by Sam Holcroft
The most enjoyable play in the sequence is a lovely political fantasia that brings together a female Prime Minister and a porn star turned successful businesswoman.
Heather Craney is all too believable as Kim, a celebrity who is proud of her dark past and about to launch her latest line of sex products on a TV chat show.
Her secret connection to the Prime Minister Bridget, played by Stella Gonet, is eventually revealed, at which point the steely-hearted politician resorts to what can only be described as blackmail to get her own way.
In doing so, the pair form an unholy and most unlikely alliance to promote the female cause through blue movies.
Pink works on two levels. It is a light-hearted comedy that pokes equal quantities of fun at politicians and porn stars but, underlying the humour, some serious messages come across about the nature of celebrity, gender relations, the claiming of expenses and the burden that spouses can put on their already overworked husbands and wives.
You, Me and Wii by Sue Townsend
The final play in the sequence brings the local Labour MP, Claire Cox as Selina, into a deprived Leicester household comprising four equally terrifying and depressing generations.
Grandma Sheila (Kika Markham) is the matriarch, ruling a roost that must receive incredible amounts in welfare with a family that includes her daughter Kerry, granddaughter Courtney (Amy Loughton playing a single mother of 14) and grandson Vincent (Felix Scott in the role of a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and reduced to videogames as a life-support), not to mention the rather plastic baby.
The day does however end on a hopeful note, as with the help of Selina, the family begins to recover at least a modicum of pride, although there must be doubts about whether this can last beyond the end of her visit.
Playing until 17 July
Reviewer: Philip Fisher