Katie Arnstein’s one-woman show Bicycles and Fish is a wryly funny look at a teenage girl’s introduction to feminism, told through a mix of memoir, observational humour and ukulele songs – all served with a side order of rhubarb and custard sweeties, distributed among the audience at the start.
‘This is a story about the day I became a feminist’, Arnstein tells us, so you know that beyond the smiley persona and the comedy tunes we’re in for something darker, since feminism is a politics few are converted to benignly.
But initially for 16-year-old Katie, her only problems are recurring cystitis (she notes the irony of being a regular sufferer of ‘honeymooner’s disease’ while still fantasising about getting her first kiss) and a crush on a boy in school. But bruising encounters with a harassing boss and a bunch of lairy drunks on the train home teach her an unasked-for lesson in standing up for herself.
Arnstein is an engaging performer who clearly cares about her material and the piece makes important points – she’s at pains to point out that in a world where Donald Trump is president, feminism has never been more relevant – but not everything works. Or, to be more honest, not everything worked for me. The Bob-Dylan-Love-Actually signs routine feels done to death, and the rather heavy-handed positioning of the show as not-just-personal-experience-but-part-of-a-larger-problem feels unnecessary (done with audio clips of everything from Maya Angelou and Hilary Clinton being inspirational to examples of everyday sexism in the media). I recognise, though, that perhaps this is simply because, as a dyed-in-the-wool feminist of longstanding, I’m just not the target audience for the show – too much of it felt like just reciting the obvious.
The schooldays recollections also feel like overly well-trodden ground, set in some generic NostalgiaLand where floppy disks co-exist with Harry Potter references, and it’s only as the piece sharpens to its climatic scenes that you realise this homogeneity may have been the point. That every young girl has a right to fantasise about her first kiss being like a movie, and to not have that fantasy snatched away at the hands of a lecherous employer; that a train journey home should be spent dreaming about the boy she likes, not desperately assessing her safety as she counts down the minutes till she can escape boorish drunks.
It’s this, ultimately, that makes me warm to both the piece and performer. It’s not a story about a girl being victimised, it’s a story of a woman fighting back – whether by running a letter-writing campaign to shame the sexist café owner she worked for or pulling the emergency cord on the train to stop her harassers quite literally in their tracks. In the style of a young Victoria Wood, she laces deceptively cutesy, funny songs with bite, and under all the smiles and the sweeties, there’s sharpness and spikiness to spare.
Bicycles and Fish was at Northern Stage on 16th April. It tours to Basingstoke in May. More info here.