In celebration of its fiftieth birthday, Kennington’s OvalHouse has been holding a season called Counterculture 50: a series of five theatrical works, each commemorating a different decade of the theatre’s proudly countercultural history. Though the commissions encompass everything from an interactive seventies board game (Crimplene Millionaire) to a racy noughties cabaret (Kinky), there is something about The Lady’s Not For Walking Like An Egyptian, a playful dissection of the eighties, that condenses the season perfectly. The piece, by female performance duo Mars.tarrab, reaffirms OvalHouse’s time-honoured position as a torchbearer of the women’s theatre movement; indeed the theatre today is run by another female duo, Rachel Briscoe and Rebecca Atkinson-Lord.
In their past commissions, Mars.tarrab – performance artists Rachel Mars and Nat Tarrab – have honed a distinctive variety of playful amateurishness: what they lack in production values, they make up for in energy. The Lady’s Not For Walking Like An Egyptian, happily, continues much in this vein. Their ramshackle nature is typified by the set: a chaos of newspaper clippings, Greenham Common posters and lists written in felt tip on pieces of cardboard. As they would have it, while the show markets itself based on one single conceit – the juxtaposition of Margaret Thatcher’s speeches with female-fronted hits from the decade – the performance itself is nowhere near that systematic, jumping frenetically from song to speech to skit.
For the most part, the show works. The performance is never less than charming, and at times it is truly inspired, such as when the duo re-enact the sinking of the Belgrano on space hoppers. What’s more, Mars and Tarrab’s enduring chemistry ensures that there is a genuine vigour when the two debate with each other. It is delightful to see their long-standing friendship in action as they discuss how Cats kick-started their love of theatre, or debate which one of them owes more to the eighties as a formative influence.
That said, there are times when their warm amateurishness descends into sloppiness: it’s jarring when Tarrab recites the lyrics of Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Holding Out for a Hero’ when the song that is playing is ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’. In addition, some of the political sentiment is a little coarse: the world does not need another ‘Milk Snatcher’ epithet, or speculation on Mrs Thatcher’s reproductive organs.
Nevertheless, Mars.tarrab have put together an unfailingly likeable show, and at its best the audience truly learns something, such as the fact that No. 10 received so many complaints about Thatcher repeatedly wearing the same suit that her PA had to keep an index card system relating to her fashion choices. The duo’s unpretentious, DIY energy is a pleasing antidote to the banal, production-line culture that they lambaste, and as a result the show’s mission is accomplished. After 50 fruitful years, OvalHouse’s commitment to a lively counterculture continues unabated.
The Lady’s Not For Walking Like An Egyptian continues at OvalHouse’s upstairs theatre until February 16. For more information, visit the show’s website.