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‘A thought-provoking set of performances’: ONE HAND TIED BEHIND US – Old Vic (Online review)

It’s International Women’s Day (8 March) and, in the run up to this, the Old Vic is streaming some short plays originally staged in 2018 to mark 100 years since women were given the right to vote. The title of the series comes from suffragette Hannah Mitchell’s autobiography: “No cause can be won between dinner and tea, and most of us who were married had to work with one hand tied behind us.” The celebratory evening was curated by Maxine Peake and originally consisted of five monologues from commissioned writers and performed by an experienced cast; four of these are now available to view.

The various pieces cover a lot of ground and are varied in style although the settings remain minimal throughout – basically a red circular platform in front of the main Old Vic stage with a chair or two. Annabel Bolton directs throughout and draws quite different performances from the four actors, two of whom perform script in hand and two without. Needless to say, the latter are better at making direct contact with the audience and I assume this was a decision made because of timing factors rather than anything else.

The most overtly comic is Jeanette Winterson’s play Mother’s Little Helper 1963 which is performed knowingly by Celia Imrie. She starts by musing on Valium and, ostensibly, by distributing some into the audience. This leads her back in time to her younger days when the Pill was introduced and then even further to her awakening sexuality and the time she tried to buy condoms. Women, by then, had long had the power to vote but had still to achieve the same level of freedoms as the men. The protagonist’s ability to source “something for the weekend” is fraught with difficulty; as the chemist reminds her “I know your father”. Imrie makes full use of her range as a comic performer and clearly delights the audience.

Peake’s own play, Contactless, also contains a number of comic moments very drily supplied by Siobhan McSweeney. She is just emerging from a four year prison sentence following her taking the rap after some devious financial behaviour by (male) work colleagues. While in prison she has not had the right to vote which calls to mind the main theme of the evening. Peake’s writing is both humorous and sobering and when McSweeney is free of her script her performance soars.

The other two plays are rather more serious in tone. Betsy by Ella Hickson and performed by Jill Halfpenny shows a woman who wants to be in charge of her own destiny but fate seems to conspire against her. The character likes things ordered and organised but finds that life is rather more messy than that, particularly when it comes to her sister (the titular character) who has some issues. The narrator wants to whisk her off on a holiday, but things go awry at the airport and there are some invidious choices to be made. Halfpenny’s performance is strong and nuanced although I did feel I really needed to see both characters to make the play fully effective. The most successful piece is Imagine That by Kit de Waal and performed by Flo Wilson. The speaker here lives on a troubled estate and gets involved in community action with a persistent neighbour after she has suffered a horrible personal trauma. Wilson’s delivery oscillates between joyful celebration and heartfelt emotion and shows just how effective a monologue can be in painting a portrait of a life in fifteen minutes.

This is a thought provoking set of performances which come across well original on video. A fifth piece, Bola Agbaje’s We Raise Girls! as performed by Sheila Atim, is not part of the current available programme; presumably there were some rights issues, or the video was not up to standard. In lieu of this the Old Vic have commissioned two new pieces to be released on March 8th, so I’ll be back to look at those in a few days’ time.

from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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