Oh, I wanted to love this. An all-female production, directed by a woman (Becky Hope-Palmer). A woman-focused company (She Productions) that’s doing community engagement around the show, talking about women and girls, consent and sex. I read all the press interviews, which talked intelligently about #MeToo and empowerment and the importance of telling women’s stories. Oh, how much I want to love this.
So, I sit down, keen and gleaming and eager, and two seconds in we get the first fat joke. Betsy, the only heavy woman on stage (Alisa Hutchinson, better than her part) is already the butt of the laughter: greedy and coarse comedy fodder, constantly obsessed with where her next meal is coming from, even as she’s eating her last. Oh, it’s progressive, sort of, sure. She rises above their expectations (the show takes delight in scolding one of the characters for commenting on Betsy’s weight, ignoring its own complicity), she even finds love in the end. With a chef, of course, every fat girl’s dream lover, their romance reduced to salivating over patties and chips.
Oh, but I still want to love it. Even as I, with my fat body, sat there watching, reduced to a comedy sidekick, I wanted to enjoy this rarity. The banter of women, their ambitions writ large. Their competitiveness, and their spikiness. Their flaws and their ugliness and their laughter and their spite.
And bits of this show deliver. The characters are broadly drawn, but the likeable cast fill them out well. Annie Kirkman in particular brings depth to the brittle singer Sindy and handles the darker moments of the show with skill – we’ll come back to them, oh yes – and bandmates Josie Morley, Alice Rose Palmer and Marina Papadopoulos are hard to fault.
There are moments of real charm and honesty – what does a 60s musician do on her period, if her performance dress is short and white? Ruth Hall’s bright, poppy design serves the piece well, and the soundtrack of classics – some played straight, some clever pastiches – keeps the whole thing bopping. It’s mostly very funny. And hey we can laugh at the fat girl, she’s usually the one making the jokes.
But too often it’s paper-thin tropes spinning in familiar circles. The issues might be genuine, if well-worn – girls fretting over how to get a husband, how to keep a boyfriend, how to balance their dreams with the demands of the world – but the piece is too ready to fall back on easy jokes and clichés.
And then comes the second half, and I’m trying to guess which one will get raped, and when. I’m hating this, the too-familiar waiting to see which woman in a production will be harmed, to guess where that harm might come from, the form in which it will take. It’s a tic I’ve developed seeing too many shows, too many on-stage assaults, as instinctive now as looking behind me when I walk, as having my keys in my knuckles on a dark street.
It’s obvious it’s coming. A group of naïve young women pushing social boundaries, going to play for the troops in Germany, of course sexual assault is the inevitable result. Are there any other consequences women are allowed, on stage, in stories? Isn’t rape the dramatist’s Damocles’ sword, dangling over their heads, always ready to descend?
On the one hand, it’s hard to criticise an all-female show for featuring sexual assault. After all, statistically, you get even a handful of women together, and at least one of them will have been assaulted. The reality of women – all women – includes rape, or the threat of rape, or the fear of rape, or dealing with, knowingly or not, the consequences of rape, because if it’s not you it’s definitely someone you know, someone you work with, someone you’re related to.
But on the other… God, I’m so tired of this. Of feeling like women on stage are Chekhov’s gun: if they’re there, someone’s going to use them, or why have them there at all? I’m sick of seeing stories that feel like they are building to this inevitable – and it’s always seen as grimly inevitable – climax, because it’s simply the unavoidable result of women living their lives.
And if you are going to put a rape on stage, if you really need to do it, maybe don’t do it like this. The assault itself is as sensitively handled as these things can be, but it still feels like a thrown in third act plot point. Something has to change the direction of the story, end the girls’ adventure, might as well be this, right?
And hey, it’s the posh girl, the haughty girl. It made her more likeable, right? It humbled her. There she was, all stuck up, all separate from her friends, well. Look at her now. A quick rape, a bit of a cry, and there she is, reinvented, a survivor, dressed like a hippy now, dolly bird dresses in the bin. Ready to take the stage as one of them. Defiant, proud, finally part of the group she has always been aloof from. Proves she’s just like us, doesn’t it, even if she earned it in fear and horror, bent over the DJ decks by a stranger in a German strip club.
It might be an unintentional message – I’m sure it is – but the show does nothing to deal with the actual fallout of assault, just rushes to the finale, satisfied it’s hit that crucial emotional beat in Everywoman’s Story, no matter how briefly it’s dealt with, no matter what signal that sends.
Everyone gets what they want, in the end. The fat girl gets her chef and her chips. The shy girl gets her moment in the spotlight, gifted by her newly-damaged bandmate, who has finally learned to share. The posh girl, defiled and humiliated, gets back her motivation, her freedom from her overbearing family, and most of all, our sympathy – we’re supposed to like her now, now that she’s been broken. There’s 60s songs and emotional beats and enough crowd-pleasing jokes to keep the tour bus rolling, no matter what it runs over on the way.
But, I don’t get what I want, the thing I was so desperately hoping for. A show full of women and women’s stories, where a curvy girl is allowed a character equally well-rounded. Where female freedom isn’t bought with violation, where a woman’s ambition and independence can have other than the same old well-trodden tragic consequences. The show I thought I was getting, the show I wanted to love.
And I know I am being unfair. I’ve seen far worse at the hands of male writers, male directors, in show after show after show where women are simply prizes or set dressing, used or discarded according to a man’s whim. It’s a disproportionate weight to put on an all-woman show, to expect them to get everything right, when men are allowed to get so much wrong.
So I take my disappointment and fat body home – astonishingly, managing not to obsess about chips on the way, who knew that was even possible for the likes of Betsy and me? And I swallow down my sadness, and hope for better stories than these.
It’s Different for Girls is on at Live Theatre, Newcastle, until 15 November, then touring until 30th November. More info here.