Set in a small London flat, adorned with psychedelic seventies prints and featuring a heavily female influenced soundtrack, four very different women are brought together through very different circumstances. Widely known as a historic icon of early feminism, Pam Gems’s characters in Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi take us on a journey of eating disorders, estranged husbands and children, prostitution and ex-lovers.
This production commemorates the centenary of the death of Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, and Jagged Fence Productions presents the play that originally ran at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1976 under the name of Dead Fish, and then transferred to the West End under director Michael Codron.
In the intimate (yet well air-conditioned!) space of the Finborough Theatre, the play begins slowly, introducing the characters that we become fond of by the end, and the quartet of talented actresses is at its strongest when they are all in the same room.
Helena Johnson gives us Vi, the temperamental, sometimes childlike young woman with anorexia, whose character provides us with much of the humour in the latter scenes, as she begins her road to recovery. Sophie Scott as wounded, broken Dusa, becomes the heart of the story. Scott’s tremendous acting, particularly on hearing news that her children have been taken by her husband, is quite the showstopper. Emily Dobbs plays driven Stas, who works as a female escort to earn the money to study at Hawaii University, and seems to be the reckless, most compassionate one of the four. Then there is Olivia Poulet as Fish, who by all means seems the most in control of the ladies in terms of career and money prospects, but falls at the relationship hurdle. Haunted by her ex-lover and ticking biological clock, the seemingly in-control mother figure and her roommates find solace in bottles of wine and Valium.
There are so many parts to Gems play, and so many different storylines for each character, that although we become attached to their journeys, it is never quite explained how or why the four come to be living together, and the play’s climax can be guessed about half an hour beforehand.
It makes for a rather flat end to the evening, but you cannot fault the technical team: Katie Bellman’s design, Jess Glaisher’s lighting and Matt Downing’s sound design keep the play ticking over quite tidily, and give a real sense of the seventies in the set.
Being quite the feminist play at the time of publication, you get a real hint of the women’s struggle with propaganda boards featuring quotes of “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” behind Fish’s shocking speech addressing a jury about a man’s ownership of his wife. It is one of the most memorable scenes of the evening.
Overall, it’s a steady, statement of a play, but I couldn’t help but feel a little dejected after the play’s abrupt end.
Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi is playing The Finbourough Theatre until 3 August 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.