The great thing about venues like the Rosemary Branch Theatre is that, away from the pressures of big commercial theatre, their creatives can take risks, making their work as daring or as wacky as they like and The Frida Kahlo of Penge West is clearly a product of that environment.
The tone for the piece is set by the complimentary tequila handed out at the door – this is a production that wants its audience to have fun. First we meet timid Zoe (Laura Kirman), a woman who is ‘too scared to live’, awkward, unambitious and in love with her boss. In a bid to impress him, she tries to buy tickets for a high-brow play, and runs into her uni friend Ruth (Cecily Nash), a self-obsessed out-of-work actress who is angry with everything and everyone. What starts as a few nights on Zoe’s sofa turns into an obsessive project for Ruth – a one woman show about the life of Frida Kahlo.
At its best, the play is raucously funny, with some brilliant one-liners from drama queen Ruth as well as some very on-point observations about the lack of women on stage. There’s a rather barbed reference to companies who dare to stage all-male productions of As You Like It and Twelfth Night that would make Mark Rylance and co hang their heads in shame. But Ruth is also a weakness in the play – she sometimes seems a little too ridiculous and caricatured, and at times I yearned for her to show a genuine emotion to counter-balance the parade of cock jokes and insensitivity. Her character is excellently countered, however, by the very likeable and brilliantly believable Zoe, perhaps a little too much of a shy and prudish stereotype at times but played with great honesty by Kirman, and in the end it’s Ruth’s awful behaviour that helps Zoe to turn her life around.
The play’s first half suffers from a lack of structure, and the determination of the script to make every moment comic, though enjoyable, means that the few moments that should be moving are not given the pathos they deserve. A more restrained version of this play, with a greater focus on the darker parts of the story and in particular Zoe’s growing antagonism towards Ruth, would not be out of place at the Royal Court, but I have a feeling that its the play’s unashamed silliness that writer/director Chris Larner, and, by the sound of it, the audience, love most about this hugely enjoyable production.
The Frida Kahlo of Penge West is playing Rosemary Branch Theatre until 13 July. For more information and tickets, see the Rosemary Branch Theatre website.