Wednesday, May 20, 2015

'The Flannelettes' at the King's Head Theatre, 19th May 2015

The vocal power and attitude of Motown is often in curious opposition to the lyrical content. Strong, bold and dynamic women strut across the stage, yet all too often they're plaintively offering themselves in submission to their men, asking Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, explaining that they Ain't Too Proud To Beg and even to the the masochistic self-justification of He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss). 

This weird dichotomy frames Richard Cameron's new play The FlannelettesSet in a Yorkshire mining village, the show centres on a shelter for women escaping domestic abuse. This safe haven is run by the kind and practical social worker Brenda (Suzan Sylvester), part therapist, part best friend and part mother to all those that need her services. Just arriving (and sporting a painful looking black eye) is Jean (Celia Robertson), who's escaping nearly 20 years of mental and physical abuse. Hovering at the periphery are two men; pawnbroker and sometime drag queen George (Geoff Leesley) and hapless Community Support Officer Jim (James Hornsby).

Also arriving is Brenda's niece Delie (Emma Hook), lead singer of the titular Flannelettes. Delie is a curious character; described as having the body of a 22 year old and the mind of a 12 year old. She works as a litter picker for the council and is so fastidious about her work that she's just received a trophy from the Mayor. The characters exists in a curiously honest limbo, blurting out whatever's on her mind and simply trying to do what little good in the world she can.

But shit is about to go down. We're introduced to the fragile Roma (Holly Campbell) - coerced into prostitution by her manipulative drug dealer boyfriend. Soon events are piling on top of one another, exposing the squalid seam of abuse, corrupt and sexual exploitation that lurks just below the surface of society.

The Flannelettes isn't an easy watch. There's several deeply uncomfortable passages that recount horrific instances of physical and sexual abuse. These are all the more powerful for being told in retrospect, implicating the audience by forcing us to stage them in our imaginations. This is underlined by some disturbingly effective makeup work; angry purple bruises suddenly appearing and gradually healing - horrible patterns of smashed capillaries shifting across the character's faces like cumulonimbus clouds across the sky.

Cameron is also successful in conveying the psychology of abuse; grappling with the paradox of women remaining devoted to men that have knocked seven shades of shit out of them. It's an incredibly thorny issue - the instinctive reaction to a character happily returning to a man that fractured their skull and literally dumped them in the rubbish is to assume she's utterly deluded. Yet The Flannelettes explores this intelligently; showing us the mental processes by which you can become convinced that your abuse is due to your failings and that you can do better.

This isn't exactly the feel good stage hit of the summer, but these are the kinds of important issues that theatre should be tackling. The show is aided by some juicily complex performances, particularly Emma Hook's Delie, who occupies a weird no-man's land between childhood and maturity. Also excellent is Celie Robertson, who throws many class subtleties into her performance, gently separating her from the rest. 

That said, for all its intelligence and social conscience, this is a rather unimaginatively staged production. A great deal of scenes are two person conversations, generally blocked in an  static fashion with the characters parked in position or sat behind a table. More problems come in some quite clumsy scene transitions, which, considering that this is mostly set in one location and the scenery consists of a table and chairs, seem bizarrely awkward. There came a point when I closed my eyes and imagined this as a Radio 4 Drama of the Week, which it may as well be in this form.

It's unfortunate that The Flannelettes stumbles a bit with regards to staging. There's a remarkably clear-eyed thesis on the links between economic depression and a rise in common cruelty tucked away in here, and for brief moments the power of this shines through the morass. Similarly, the 'Greek chorus' of Motown is a fine idea, but proves to be a seriously undeveloped one. A worthwhile experience but far from an essential one.


The Flannelettes is at the King’s Head Theatre, Upper Street, Islington until 6 June, evenings at 7pm. Tickets here.

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