Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Review: 'The Female Gaze & Other Stories' at The Cockpit, 12th December 2017

2017 saw The Cockpit host The Female Gaze, a series of scratch nights curated by Emily Renée and Annabelle Rich (of Rich Creative) that showcased short works focusing on female experiences. The Sexual Odyssey delivered various perspectives on eroticism and intimacy;  Written on the Body was about the treatment of the female body; and the third, Spellbound, delved into feminine ritual and magic. Now, with 2018 waiting in the wings, we have The Collection, bringing together four tweaked and redeveloped pieces from these shows. 

First up is Sophie Ablett's A-Sexual Being, in which two women, Alia (Catherine Nix-Collins) and Bea (Sophie Ablett) navigate the choppy waters of sexual compatibility. We open with them happily beginning a relationship, though this is quickly thrown into confusion when Alia awkwardly broaches the topic of an open relationship. Bea is, understandably, freaked out.

From here we diagram out their sexualities, helped along by chalk circles on the floor and scrawled labels: 'bisexual', 'hetero-romantic' and 'gray-asexual'. The division between the pair stems from Alia's instinctive embracing of her sexuality, while Bea needs to find her 'category'. I think people are way too quick to find a particular niche for themselves and stick to it. So, I had a huge amount of sympathy with Alia when Bea says she's 'on the spectrum' of asexuality - because what the fuck does that even mean? 

In its focus on labels and identity A-Sexual Being has gotten hold of something both fascinating and unique about modern sex, and while it doesn't quite stick the landing, it at least provides some good brain food.

Next is Annabelle Rich's It, which is kind of like Drop Dead Fred if Rik Mayall were an eating disorder. Rich plays Allie, currently recovering from something unspecified yet serious enough that her friend Alex (Josie Connor) handles her with kid gloves. Similar pressure comes from her boyfriend Tommy (Elliot Janks), who reacts with suspicion when she starts requesting toast without butter.

These are just one of many symptoms of the titular It (Emma-May Uden), a personification of self-loathing that urges Allie to avoid meals, to exercise to exhaustion and to snap defensively at her friends. Easily the best bits of this short are when Allie and It are in open conflict - whether Allie is urging herself through a frantic, punishing workout or trying to work up the courage to eat some toast without puking it all up. 

Uden's smug, apparently all-powerful disorder is a great bit of performance, on the surface cute and pixie-ish but with a palpably evil core. There's some great layering as she begins to talk 'for' Allie, as if she's beginning to over-ride her personality. Sadly the peripheral characters, especially Tommy, are a bit too thinly sketched, but y'know, flies and ointments and all that.

After the interval comes Emily Renée's The Circle, which I simultaneously enjoyed the most and understood the least. After a drug-fuelled nightclub yell-meet-hookup, K (Renée) and L (Ryan Woodcock) end up in bed. Though they clearly have the hots for each other, can their relationship survive a next day comedown? 

The Circle felt spookily relevant to my own relationship experiences; puzzling over whether you love someone and struggling to say the words 'I love you', probing each other's limits through sex and attempting to understand how a person's past influences their present life. What I also had in common with it is that a lot of this stuff completely flies over my head. So, I found myself primarily identifying with Woodcock's 'L' as he figures out K. At times Renée's character seemed to be an unsolvable (and volatile) puzzlebox, and I felt a shiver of recognition when L was reduced to saying "Just tell me what to do!

Though I didn't understand K, Emily Renée's performance was the best thing I saw all night - a cocktail of confidence, vulnerability, sexiness and intelligence that quickly and efficiently sketches out someone who is viscerally 'real' in a way that characters in the other pieces never quite manage. Awesome stuff.

Finally we have Chitta Vritti by Francesca Tennant. After three pieces that are largely serious, this has a refreshingly comedic tinge. Nat (Tracey Lee Sharples) is trying to do some yoga, aiming to clear her head and tone up her body. In her way is a ghoul's gallery of worries - personified by a cruel boss, a waspy mother, bitchy co-workers and so on. Despite her goal of a clear, tranquil mind she's assailed by endless interruptions that drag her down.

I don't particularly have much to say about Chitta Vritti other than that it absolutely achieves what it sets out to do and makes a series of dead-on observations about the pressures of contemporary life. My favourite moment comes when Nat is obsessing about her 'back rolls', feverishly trying to be body positive about herself even as she wallows in self-disgust. It's the cherry on a nicely constructed, complex and visually satisfying pie.

The Female Gaze covers a lot of ground over these four plays and each approaches its chosen subject with intelligence and insight. Despite billing itself as a scratch night, a hell of a lot of prep has obviously gone into each piece and while there may be the odd dramatic anticlimax or stereotyped supporting character, it's obvious why these plays were chosen to show off a year of experimentation.

Roll on The Female Gaze 2018.

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