Eight seated women let out streams of mundanities, unpunctuated except by sighs. Here, Peter Gill marks half a century of playwriting by turning his lens on the dull residues left by the daily grind. But what he finds is neither authentic nor strong enough to jolt the proceedings out of lethargy.
Having Peter Gill direct his own work isn’t the best of starts, but even the most dynamic of directors would struggle with a deconstructed text that’s largely left to the audience to assemble. The women’s choruses are free of both the unison, and the death, drama and misery that lurk behind the scenes of Greek tragedies. Instead they unleash waves of gently lapping mundane incident, patterned with names of what feels like hundreds of husbands, children, carers and cleaners.
Each woman’s narrative involves its own utterly distinct cast (oh, the sinking feeling when you realise the names you’ve been carefully remembering won’t recur again) and combined with the lack of interaction between the actors, it makes engaging with the work an unrelenting chore. It’s hard to care about the relative bed-making skills of Imelda and Maria or about Philippa’s unlucky marital affairs when we’ll never meet any of them. And the text’s faintly fusty approach to social class doesn’t do much to sharpen the focus.
The effect is a bit like a WI meeting crossed with an evening speed-dating: but with none of the rousing properties of either hymn singing or the certainty that less interesting encounters will be over when the bell rings. Peter Gill can definitely write dialogue, and there were enough beautiful moments to make me want to know more about his decades of output. His first work, The Sleepers Den, was a bit of kitchen sink realism set in the house of a Welsh working class family. His most recent plays (Certain Young Men, The York Realist, Versailles) focus on love between men. It’s hard not to wonder if this latest, all-female casting call is an attempt to stay with the zeitgeist by answering the Equity-bolstered demands for proper roles for women.
But rather than having hit the jackpot, the women here feels like they’re each auditioning to be in something else, as they sit in a long line of chairs waiting for their turn. These roles are bit-parts lumped together to be the main event – the women are stereotyped “domestics”, under-appreciated wives or cast aside mothers. None of them have a job outside their home, or someone else’s. I felt drawn to well-heeled Sylvia (Lucy Fleming)’s wry wit, then disappointed by her weakness as she unravelled and called for Mummy. By her side, Lily (Tessa Bell-Briggs) was rarely allowed to clear her eyes from tears.
The overwhelming feeling is that Peter Gill has plonked eight women on the stage, then wandered off – like a guilty husband leaving a still-cellophaned bouquet on the kitchen table. In this drooping production, his text’s beauties aren’t arranged in a way to display the best sides of either actors of audiences.