Reviews London TheatreOWE & Fringe Published 9 September 2016

Review: How To Date A Feminist at the Arcola

Arcola Theatre ⋄ 6th September - 1st October 2016

A more palatable romcom: Sally Hales reviews Samantha Ellis’s take on the classic girl-meets-boy genre.

Sally Hales
How To Date A Feminist at the Arcola.

How To Date A Feminist at the Arcola.

If you’re thinking about heading along to How to Date a Feminist in search of answers to the Big Question such as, ‘What do women want?’ and ‘Can men be feminists?’ it might be best to think twice. By the end of the play the only answer offered to those Big Ones would probably be an even more baffled, ‘I don’t know’. Indeed, the only question likely to be answered in the collective affirmative about this reversed romcom is ‘Is it a funny and engaging way to spend 90 minutes?’ Hell, yes.

Our main man, Steve, is the rather dry and pompous hardline feminist, while his beloved, journalist Kate, is pretty fluid with her interpretation of gender politics. She’s read the set text, but is failing the practical. She loves a bad boy. Sleeps with her boss. Submerges herself in perfume. What a terrible (sarcastic tone) woman.

The soon-to-be-couple’s fancy dress meet-cute sees them lightly argue over the knotty problem of female representation with Wonder Woman as a point of reference – and is all the more provocative for being pretty damn funny. Samantha Ellis’s plot sees Steve (Tom Berish) and Kate (Sarah Daykin) navigate the kind of hijinx-ridden, mismatched boy-meets-girl narrative that would have blown up the box office before the internet killed the genre by offering women (and everyone else) multiple worldviews, and those white middle-aged male gatekeepers of culture finally worked out that, no, they really don’t know what women want. (Helpful hint. Any man who’s tempted to ask ‘What do women want?’ without irony can just assume the answer is: ‘Not you’.)

And this whip-smart romp doesn’t suffer for having its major reversal as its central conceit, either, with Ellis dropping in another strangely believable hypocrisy bombshell which beautifully mirrors the central dynamic. There are gags and toe-curling happenings galore, yet the characters remain firmly and, I suspect, deliberately 1D. How To Date A Feminist is more of a whistlestop tour through the day-to-day minefield of modern sexual politics than an exploration of feminist theory. Steve keeps apologising for the patriarchy but never quite seems to understand why.

This is a breezy and frenetic take on a once dominant genre that’s perhaps not sadly lost its crown. What it’s not is a character piece. The actors play multiple roles as each other’s nightmare in-laws and ideologically old slipper ex-lovers. It is all surface, no feeling: neither lover is crushed by the weight of their tragic past and there are no navel-gazing, epiphany-laden soliloquies. They’re possibly just a bit, y’know, shallow – bobbing about on winds of change in their lives. Pretty much like the rest of us, then.

That’s not to say they are stereotypes, more painted with broad enough strokes to be wholly digestible. But like the mass-produced culture How To Date A Feminist takes a its template, there’s fist hidden inside the fluff, and Ellis occasionally inflicts wounds with some wonderfully funny, and occasionally shocking, snark of the kind that does more to provoke a change in our understand of the other than 1,000 doctoral theses.

On the sparse set, the pair snap in and out of their multiple characters convincingly, although the constant onstage costume changes run the risk of becoming tiresome for actors and audience alike, and is, I suspect, an attempt to instil the kind of fast moving physicality that’s missing from the text. It’s a small misstep in a show that’s otherwise directed with simplicity, clarity, and enthusiastic commitment to pacy narrative energy by Matthew Lloyd

Things get much better when the costume changes are dispensed with in the final scenes in favour of a breakneck conclusion in which all three sets of characters HAVE IT OUT. But there’s no waltzing off into the sunset for a happily-ever-after. Kate and Steve’s future looks littered with problems but there’s a faint yet detectable whiff of unsexy compromise in their futures, plus a satisfying breaking away from their (averagely) troublesome parental influences. I’ll take that as a romantic resolution any day.

So, if Hollywood is still seriously looking for a way to make the romcom palatable to a modern audience, it could do a lot worse than heading on over to the Arcola.

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Sally Hales is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: How To Date A Feminist at the Arcola Show Info


Directed by Matthew Lloyd

Written by Samantha Ellis

Cast includes Tom Berish, Sarah Daykin

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