Hailed as an early milestone in feminist theatre, Pam Gems’ Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1976, before transferring to the West End. It tells the story of four very different women sharing a house in London in a time of political upheaval and great uncertainty over what form the future of women’s rights was to take.
Watching it now, the play seems a little dated and wearing, at least initially; my heart sank a little in the opening scene: it was as if each character was taking it in turns to have one ‘women’s issue’ each. Dusa is entering a custody battle as part of a bitter divorce, Stas working as a prostitute to fund her education, Vi refusing to eat and Fish losing her long-term partner to another woman. Yes, all important issues and worth discussing, all the more so in 1976, but now, I thought, NOW – when we’ve had Mess look so beautifully at eating disorders? When Di and Viv and Rose so movingly considered the friendships of three women in a house-share? Do we need this play now?
In short, yes, we do. In the hands of a strong cast of four and under the direction of Helen Eastman, Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi still feels relevant – and, if not exactly fresh, certainly secure in its aims that’s also enjoyable to watch; a play with plenty to say. Though each character’s problem does seem a little contrived and dated at the outset (as is, frankly, the concept of them having One Problem Each), Gems’s treatment of these issues is, in many ways, ahead of its time.
Stas, for instance, is gloriously remorseless and – more than that – delightfully un-fucked up about her supplementary work as a prostitute. I found myself continually waiting for the scene where she broke down hysterically about how dirty she felt and how wrong she had been – but it never came. Pragmatic to the last, Stas is saving and saving to study the university course she wants: this money will enable her to move to Hawaii and become a marine biologist, so who cares what she has to do to get it? Not Stas.
It’s a miserable-looking situation from the outside, but her attitude to it makes her seem like a rounded and intriguing character rather than an issue with a face – helped greatly by a beautiful, funny, natural performance from Emily Dobbs. She and Olivia Poulet shine particularly bright in a generally strong cast, with Poulet giving a nuanced portrayal of a complicated woman.
The real pleasure of these performances is how they grow on you, so that by the end it is as if you are watching a quite different play to the one you sat down to: one where the plight of its characters is not outdated, but real, relevant and moving.