This bleakly funny debut play from Danielle Ward sees double act Nell and Kathy reunite for one last gig after a decade’s hiatus, a short Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? extract at a mixed bill night with telly comedians doing bits from films for charity.
The Baby Jane costumes and Bette Davis eyebrows feed the performed nature of the pair’s apparent animosity, nodding to our cultural obsession with catfights, narratives that feed female competition and stifle female friendship – but it soon becomes clear that that isn’t Nell and Kathy’s whole story. Growing in confidence as it goes on, The Half rejects the catfight narrative and embraces a tenderness that is far more exciting to see on stage.
Comparisons to the Inside No 9 episode Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room, about a double-act reuniting after a long and acrimonious hiatus, are probably inevitable – but it’s amazing how different two similar-sounding pieces of writing can feel. As the play goes on, Ward’s focus shifts from the push-pull of love and jealousy in a partnership to drill down into how, as women comics approaching middle-age, Nell and Kathy’s sense of what is possible for their careers is strangled by trying to reflect a culture and work inside an industry that are profoundly uninterested in women. The Baby Jane outfits suddenly take on a different meaning altogether: “Name me one other film with two women leads,” quips a canny but increasingly embittered Nell. “Not Thelma and Louise.”
These are the play’s strongest scenes, where Ward tackles sexism and ageism and takes the comedy industry apart with her hands: you can feel how well she knows its unfairness, how strongly she feels it, and in these moments the play thrums with a completely justified anger against an industry that seems designed to repeatedly shut out and disenfranchise its female artists. More than worth saying at the Edinburgh Festival.
It’s beautifully performed by Anna Crilly (who, weirdly, I last saw on stage as part of double act Anna & Katy) and Margaret Cabourn-Smith. The pair have real chemistry and get every beat of Ward’s darkly funny script – but the energy sometimes lags despite how many good ingredients are on the table, with Anna MacGowan’s direction feeling a little stilted and, at times, a bit over-stated.
Plus, while Ward is a massively experienced writer, with musicals, stand-up shows and TV writing jobs under her belt, this is her first play, which you can inevitably feel at times in the pacing, or moments where The Half feels over-stuffed with ideas. But show me a totally accomplished debut play and I’ll show you someone who’s taken all their fringe work off their CV – and it’s always more exciting to watch something over-stuffed with ideas than to watch one concept stretched thin for an hour or so. Ward’s voice is darkly funny and unmistakably her own, and will only be more so in her follow-up play, whatever that might be.
The Half was on at Pleasance as part of the 2018 Edinburgh fringe. More info here.