Women make up approximately 52% of the population and yet research conducted by the Guardian last year reflects a troubling lack of representation, with an average 2:1 male to female ratio upon the stage. It was with optimism then that I entered the Rosemary Branch Theatre to witness City Shorts, a celebration of four emerging female playwrights and their works. With stark statistics such as these, the London Grey and Green Theatre Company behind this event must be commended for an evening of challenging and passionate new writing, their only premise being that the pieces had to have 50% female roles and be set within London.
Tying gender to a sense of place is an intriguing concept and was cemented in the title of the first play, Judy Upton’s 82 to North Finchley. It marches merrily along, tracking the journey of Dani (Amelia Kirk) as she searches for girlfriend Sam (Emma Sylvester), who happens to be the owner of the voice used on London Transport buses. It’s wonderfully self-effacing, with stage manager Dani lamenting that only “mates of the cast” ever attend the fringe theatre that she works on, a comment that the likeable Kirk delivers perfectly with a little searching glance towards the audience.
It is an enjoyable and solid piece but lacks the satiric edge of Ness Lyons’s Dropping Stitches. Set at a middle class parents’ knitting circle, Lyon’s delight at setting each of these oh-so-polite parents against each other is infectious. Their sing song repetition of knitting steps, interspersed with acidic comments masked beneath shrill declarations of each other’s brilliance is a delight. Losing pace is not an option within this circle as the hungry desire for perfection within each of them thunders along at the pace of the needles that frantically click together in their hands. It carries you along at this all-consuming pace only to stop abruptly as a single spotlight falls on Danielle Nott, as exhausted mum Liz reveals just how isolating the expectations of motherhood really are.
Like the lives of the teenaged girls Susan Harrison portrays, Fit for Work starts off promisingly but ends in disappointment, as a touching and believable depiction of a young girl’s life becomes a platform for a heavy handed condemnation of the government’s benefits upheaval. Its heart is certainly in the right place and the idea of exploring a topic as emotive as this through the eyes of a teenage girl, herself on the brink of becoming another one of this “lost generation”, makes it all the more poignant. Holly Ashman delivers a powerful performance and yet the message feels too big and complex to be conveyed effectively within this short play format, and thus feels clumsily squeezed in against a longer more in-depth exploration.
Wendy Thomson’s Anna delivered the biggest shock of the evening as the ‘critics’ beside me stood up and began berating the performance out loud. In fact, Thomson had cleverly absorbed the critic within her play in order to convey the barriers that women’s theatre battles against within a society that fears the word feminism. It’s bright and brave, and yet by making its critics a part of its premise it undermines a key criticism. For in a show that joins together women and London, the diversity of the city contrasts to that on the stage. Olivia Thomson as the critic in Anna bemoans the play’s “white middle class bias” and yet it is true. For, while City Shorts should rightly be celebrated for its portrayal of women, theatre can only truly progress on the equality scale when it begins to look beyond a certain type of women.
City Shorts runs from the 28 May until 2 June. For more information and tickets please see Grey and Green Theatre’s website.