Age Of Arousal, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, Dundee Rep
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Scotland’s women’s theatre company, Stellar Quines, and the Lyceum are to be congratulated on this UK premiere of Canadian writer Linda Griffiths’s play Age Of Arousal (which was “wildly inspired” by George Gissing’s 1893 English novel The Odd Women). Griffiths has extrapolated from Gissing’s narrative of female hardship in a time of a depleted male population a beautifully written play of ideas.
Veteran suffragette, turned feminist entrepreneur Mary Barfoot and her young assistant Rhoda Nunn are running a lucrative typing school for women. The arrival on the scene of the three Madden sisters (“old maids” Alice and Virginia, and their pretty, sexually awakening younger sister Monica) and the handsome Everard Barfoot (Mary’s cousin) set off various chains of events which have profound sexual and political implications.
Muriel Romanes’s nicely weighted production boasts some lovely performances (not least from Clare Lawrence Moody, a pin-sharp, but brilliantly disconcerted Rhoda; Jamie Lee, a deliciously louche-yet-innocent Everard; and Hannah Donaldson’s Monica, wonderfully comic in her sudden release of sexual energy). Designer Janet Bird’s stripped back set suits perfectly the delightful anti-realism of Griffiths’s poetic script, and her imaginative costume designs are stunning (even if the elephantine trunk on the back of Monica’s skirt is weirdly superfluous).
Despite its many invigorating elements, the play struggles to overcome the inherent difficulty of its origins in a novel. The scenes are simply too short, giving the drama a staccato structure which sometimes saps its vigour. This said, in these days of an emboldened postmodern brand of sexism, it is refreshing to see a play which glories in feminism and the politics of sex.
If there is real sophistication in Griffiths’s writing, there is an altogether more functional, workmanlike script in Jim Cartwright’s famous play The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice; which is best known, of course, for Mark Herman’s 1998 film, starring Jane Horrocks in the title role.
LV (Little Voice) is a painfully quiet, reclusive girl who has been traumatised both by her father’s death and the neglect and abuse of her drunken, sexually voracious mother. She has also, thanks to her father’s record collection, developed an extraordinary ability to recreate the voices of some of the 20th-century’s top female singers.
In its depiction of a grim, working-class north of England, and the sudden explosion of repressed talent, Cartwright’s drama is like a cross between Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste Of Honey and Lee Hall’s Billy Elliot. However, in its constant caricaturing and vulgar comedy (to say nothing of Sadie May, an offensive stereotype of someone with learning difficulties), the play hardly deserves its strong reputation among kitchen sink dramas.
If the script is inherently limited, Jemima Levick’s production is tight, courageously designed (by Janet Bird, who also designed Age Of Arousal, and provides a very different, hyper-naturalistic set here) and well-acted. In particular – and this is the evening’s saving grace – recent RSAMD graduate Helen Darbyshire plays the lead with a pain, faltering confidence and superb singing which takes her performance well above the two-dimensional pathos and cloying sentimentality of Cartwright’s script.
Age Of Arousal closes at the Royal Lyceum on Saturday, March 12, then tours until April 16; for further information visit: http://www.stellarquines.com. The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice runs at Dundee Rep until March 19.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 6 2011© Mark Brown