Conquest is full of smart as hell observations, the best being that the cis sexual 'narrative' is centred around the masculine experience. Within the sex 'story' female partner is the sphinx-like enigma to be overcome, a man's ejaculation marks the climax of the story and, signifies the point that she has been conquered. Hence Conquest.
The show is a relatively fast-paced and breezy two-hander written by Katie Caden, directed by Jess Daniels and performed by Lucy Walker-Evans and Colette Eaton. Though each plays a variety of characters, their base performances are as Alice and Jo, two women who meet when Alice is waiting in a pharmacy to be given the morning after pill. Initially, they're diametrically opposed: Jo is an abrasive, outspoken feminist who relishes the opportunity to crush a few toes and Alice is a model of fragility who bursts into tears at the slightest provocation.
The pair proceed to navigate choppy sexual, political and sociological waters, presenting the audience with pointed questions about the complexities of sexual consent, the subtle misogynies ingrained into society and what can be done to change things.
On paper it sounds a bit dry - something the play recognises. Its characters introduce themselves by explaining that they're probably going to annoy you and that they're the type of feminist that makes some women claim that they're "really more of a humanist". This keen sense of self-awareness goes a long way, while the play is confrontational it draws the audience in alongside it and makes us feel as if we're allied with the characters rather than being harangued by them.
Similar smarts are deployed in some impressive ensemble scenes in which Walker-Evans and Eaton play multiple members of a feminist action group. Though they warn us beforehand that things might get a bit confusing, strong physical and vocal work (combined with sensible blocking) ensure that things are always crystal clear. These characters land on just the right side of caricature and are a great satire on awkward group dynamics in protest groups, complete with miniature power struggles and some members dominating the conversation.
The only stumble comes in the finale, where things go off the rails and into broad farce. When much of the play has been set in dingily domestic environments: waiting rooms, paisley wallpapered flats and strange toilets, a sudden dive into a more exotic environment is jarring. It got to the point that I was wondering whether one of the characters would wake up and it'd be revealed that the last few scenes had all been a dream. It's a shame it doesn't stick the landing, because when the play is zeroed in on social interactions and dissecting apparently ordinary situations to reveal the patriarchy lurking within it's pretty amazing.
It's difficult to parcel out precisely where to ladle on the most praise, but Katie Caden's script is great - studded with moments ranging from the shiver-inducingly intense to laugh-out-loud funny. At one point one of the characters bemoans taking action without understanding the theory, but Caden obviously has a tight grip on the academic thought behind the opinions and a dab hand at transmuting it into effective drama.
Walker-Evans and Colette Eaton are also great, I can't slide a Rizla between them in terms of quality. I loved the way Walker-Evans played Alice like she had a taut violin string running right through her, sitting rigidly upright, moving with bird-like quickness and fighting constant small battles to stay in control. She's so effective at this that it's almost a shock when she switches to another character. It's difficult not to warm to the way Eaton treats Jo, though it's her cynical and even more abrasive mother, forever sat back with her lips sceptically curled around a cigarette, that was the most memorable and funny performance.
It all adds up to a deeply worthwhile hour of theatre that gave me a lot of mental chewing gum to masticate on the way home. It's nice to see a play that manages to be genuinely intellectual, sincere and funny, and Conquest hits a home run on all three.
Conquest is at The Bunker until 9th June. Tickets here.