Review: Femme Fatale, Omnibus Theatre

The premise of Femme Fatale has everything to get my theatrical juices flowing. Two complex, flawed, and not easily likeable female characters meet and forge a flawed relationship under tricky circumstances. Specifically, it’s the collision of German superstar and Andy Warhol’s muse-of-the-moment Nico (Polly Wiseman), and his would-be assassin and founder of S.C.U.M. (Society for Cutting up Men), Valerie Solanas (Sophie Olivia). The pair meet in a hotel room in 1960s New York. There’s endless potential for the exploration of female rage; sadly, it doesn’t quite hit the mark.

It’s clear that the play, written by Wiseman herself, has a genuine feminist intention. The writing is often witty and smart, delving into questions of gender expectations and double standards between men and women. At one moment, Nico asks, ‘why do my words mean less?’, and it’s a sentiment that really hits home. Valerie wants Nico’s help to spread her radical message of misandry, but Nico is reluctant to believe that all men are bad – despite the eventual revelation that she has a dark and troubled past at the hands of men. All the building blocks are there for a message of empowerment, but something is lacking.

It’s easy to see that a lot of research has gone into the conception of this play. There’s a lot of expected name-dropping from Nico,  – Lou Reed, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones – which gives us some insight into the world of the play, but it needs more, particularly in the opening sections. The play opens with Valerie entering the space and interacting with the audience as if they are attendees at a S.C.U.M. meeting, which has the potential to be fun, but on the night I attended, it fell flat on a demure audience. 

Wiseman and Olivia are very capable, watchable performers – but the chemistry isn’t there. The development of Nico and Valerie’s relationship, which flits between hostility to friendship, aggression to understanding, feels stilted. There’s not enough build-up to dramatic moments, leaving me with little belief or investment in them when they do happen. 

The show is sold as a type of cabaret night; an evening of intimate entertainment. I wanted more of this. There is some live music, which is really enjoyable, but I yearned for more of the 60s soundtrack I was expecting, and which could have done so much for enriching the world of the play. Since watching the play, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the Femme Fatale Spotify playlist provided on the theatre company’s Instagram page – I only wonder why this couldn’t have featured more in the piece.

Projections of 60s-style super-8 film (designed by Nathan Evans, who also directs) are interspersed throughout, and they hold some powerful, moving imagery of female protest. And yet, there is no connection made between these images and what is happening on stage. As a result, I find myself unable to engage with both at once; one tears my attention away from the other. There is a need for some unity between the two forms, and more attention paid to when and why they are being used. 

Towards the end, there is a somewhat rushed attempt at linking these events of the 60s to the plight of modern-day women – and of course this link is unignorable – but it feels like a tacked-on afterthought. For me, Femme Fatale is a piece with a lot of not-yet fully realised potential. It’s without a doubt a carefully considered piece of work that means a lot to those involved, but the feminist message doesn’t quite hit the right tone. I really wanted to leave feeling empowered, fired-up – but unfortunately, I leave feeling a little disappointed. 

Femme Fatale is playing the Omnibus Theatre until 27 October. For more information and tickets, visit the Omnibus Theatre website.