As I walk into the Arcola Theatre for my latest review, I jokingly contemplate that How to Date a Feminist would be the perfect first date for proud gender egalitarians such as myself. What better way to begin a new relationship than to outline the dos and don’ts of dating a strong, independent woman? I was proved completely wrong. Samantha Ellis’ latest romantic comedy turns predictable feminist plotlines on their head. In reversing the stereotypical gender roles – so that the male character is more politically correct and equality conscious than his female partner – How to Date a Feminist leaves me feeling as if I myself have learnt lessons regarding the pressures and injustices women are sometimes responsible for perpetrating themselves.
The play opens with the two protagonists stumbling onstage to the sound of The Cure’s ‘The Lovecats’ (the performance playlist also includes ‘Friday I’m in Love’ alongside Nouvelle Vague’s ‘Heart of Glass’ and 10CC’s ‘I’m not in love’ amongst others) as we join them mid plot line. Steve’s proposing to Kate… and in all honesty… it’s the least romantic proposal in the world. Steve – brought up by his activist mother on Greenham Common – prides himself upon being a male feminist, and begins his declaration of love by apologising for the patriarchy; referencing genital mutilation, domestic violence, chattel marriage and unequal pay. Kate rebukes his politically correct proposal yet finally accepts despite, as we later learn – her penchant for “bad boys”, stereotypical love of lipstick and cupcakes, and inhibiting belief that she can’t copulate with a man without having shaved her legs. This disparity in outlooks forms the basis of the humour and the play in general. Not only is it comical to observe Steve ask permission before every sexual advance he makes on Kate (and express a desire to have a turn at being the little spoon) the difference in views between the lead roles also sparks a serious internal conversation about how at times, women themselves are contributing to what feminists view as “the patriarchy”. In Kate’s case, she is a feminist in the sense she has a high-flying career as a journalist, covers stories “about the way austerity disproportionately affects women” and reads Caitlin Moran, yet she also conforms to an outdated “patriarchal” system which has convinced her that she is attracted to domineering men who will overcome and ravish her… and who eat steak. Real men always eat steak.
Ellis’ script – with its witty dialogue and relevant themes- is the backbone of this production, yet it also showcases the talent and versatility of actors Tom Berish and Sarah Daykin. Both performers are required to embody a variety of diametrically opposing roles. As well as the protagonists Steve and Kate, Daykin and Berish also bring to life characters including Morag – Steve’s Scottish, radical mother and Joe – Kate’s “old fashioned”, Israeli father. Berish is particularly impressive in his transformation into Joe, so much so that the audience forgets he was once portraying the liberal, sensitive Steve, and can only think of the conservative father figure they see before them. The multi rolling is also especially remarkable during a climactic fight scene, in which the actors constantly fluctuate between characters; their physicality’s and accents immediately changing so that the audience can easily identify which individual is speaking.
How to Date a Feminist marries an intelligent script, versatile actors and clever direction/ staging to create a hilarious romantic comedy with a twist. At times it feels like a farcical satire of various societal schools of thought. But the satire is not cruel. By turning every character into a caricature of individuals in society, Ellis avoids making a political statement, in favour of crafting an observant work, reflects and peacefully contemplates the state of gender relations in the twenty first century.
How to Date a Feminist is playing The Arcola Theatre until Saturday 1 October 2016. For more information see The Arcola Theatre website.
Photo: Nick Rutter