Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Review: 'Boots' at The Bunker, 26th February 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars 

The vast majority of what your body does is out of your control. Each cell executes a genetic code, enzymes are busy metabolising nutrient molecules and the mitochondria who supply cellular energy even possess an independent genome. This is just a tiny fraction of what's going on literally under your nose, with your consciousness less the monarch of the body and more an absent-minded CEO.

We are not luminous beings. Understanding yourself as a squishy (and honestly kinda gross) biological machine is important - not just to get a perspective on how you can best maintain that machine but to understand where you fit into a bigger picture. Just as the activity of cells makes up a body, the activity of organisms makes up an ecosystem.

So what does all that have to do with Sacha Voit and Jessica Butcher's Boots? Set in a Boots Pharmacy, this is a two-hander about the relationship between pharmacist Willow (Tanya Loretta Dee) and her elderly customer Liz (Amanda Boxer). 

Willow mostly enjoys her job, though her illusions about being in a position to support patients appear to be dissolving amidst pushing 2 for 1 offers and the Boots advantage card. She also contributes to a pharmacological research journal - an obvious point of pride for her. Liz initially appears a stereotypical cantankerous old woman, but soon reveals a self-awareness and mordant sense of humour that endears her to Liz (and the audience).

A cross-generational bond forms between the two women, with each realising that despite having had very different lives they share common experiences and both feel a deep and profound connection to nature. For Willow, this manifests in her studies of drugs obtained from trees, for Liz the local woodland provides a contemplative space outside a miserable home.

Their conversations explore how women are expected to sacrifice their lives and ambitions to please and care for men. For example, Liz doesn't seem to have been a particularly happy mother, explaining that in a moment of desperation she considered bashing her infant son's head in to stop him crying. Now in her old age, she is a carer for her ailing husband, who we soon learn does not warrant this level of kindness.

Boots repeatedly identify the woodland and nature as an intrinsically feminine sphere that allows freedom from societal bondage. Lia Waber's striking stage design draws a clear distinction between the white pharmacy plastic and the damp woodchips and tree stumps that encircle it. Appropriately enough given the botanical origins of many pharmaceuticals, the woods encroach more and more on the pharmacy the longer the play goes on.

Willow teaches Liz and the audience about the mycorrhizal networks that connect plants to one another, explaining that masculine notions of aggressive competition between organisms are out-dated, with current science revealing complex systems of balance and cooperation in nature. And so they plunge their hands deep into the soil to tap into this network - an attempt to bust through the chrysalis of millennia-old patriarchy and connect with something deep, profound and ancient.

Boots argues that enlightenment comes from recognising oneself as part of nature and not kidding yourself that you're separate from it. The products within Willow's pharmacy are derived from the woodlands; the human body has its own flora that must be tended to; we are all bound to one another in subtle and powerful ways; the forest is within us. It's not particularly difficult for individuals to work this out for themselves, but sadly it appears to escape humanity as a species.

As a thesis on the universal feminine experience and the invisible connections between organisms Boots works gangbusters. Sadly there are a couple of flies in the ointment. A minor one is that the play is studded with jokes where the gag is simply that an elderly person is talking about sex. I get that the point is to critique our expectations of who Liz is, but it's a pretty tired and safe way to conjure up laughs. Plus, if the humour arises from her acting in an aberrant way it only reinforces prejudices rather than attacks them.

Then there's the late reveal about an intensely traumatic event in Willow's past that doesn't tessellate with the rest of the play. Delivered in the middle of the finale, neither characters or audience are given the necessary time to process something with this much gravity. Ideally, you'd be able to recontextualise Willow's behaviour with this knowledge in mind, but it really doesn't add a great deal to what we've already understood about her. 

That aside, a whole bunch of intelligent, perceptive thought has clearly been poured into Boots. It's a sharply written play that communicates with confidence, clarity and humour. I liked it a lot. 

Boots is at The Bunker until 16 March. Tickets here.

(Photos by Tim Kelly, lighting by Jack Weir, set design by Lia Waber.)

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