For a brief and peculiar year I ran an afternoon drama club at my kids’ school and, because I’m not an experienced theatre-maker and even less a teacher, the little group came to think of it as the place where anything goes. They were particularly fond of “go wild” time: two or three minutes, maybe half way through our session, when the kids were struggling to focus or pay attention, so we gave up trying and they hurtled round the room instead, all whirlwind energy and hurricane shout. Each term they made a show from scratch and each show was ten minutes of totally ridiculous: outlandish plots weaving together such ineffable archetypes of childhood as time travel, oppressive Victorian boarding schools, and running away to join the circus. In possibly my favourite show, they invented a future society called Chip World, in which children had their brains removed at birth and replaced by computer chips already programmed with all necessary knowledge, thereby eradicating the need for school. Somehow I was the only person in the room who understood this as a dystopian nightmare.
Documental’s musical Hot Flushes felt a lot like those shows, which probably sounds like a horrible, damning and dismissive criticism, but that’s because there’s scant respect in this country for a) the creativity and oddity of children and b) art made with the creativity and oddity of children. Set in 2016, Hot Flushes begins with Sandra looking forward to her retirement party after decades of dedicated service to British Home Stores. If you recall, 2016 was the year BHS went bust thanks to the dodgy doings of former owner Philip Green, who expanded his own pocket to the tune of several million, a luxury yacht and a personalised Monopoly set made of gold, even as he cost thousands of people their steady jobs. Sandra’s thoughts, understandably, drift to the murderous, encouraged by a chance encounter with the head of a branch of The Well-Armed Woman – an actual organisation that promises to “Educate, Empower and Equip Women Gun Owners” and “Offer full spectrum of information, products, and resources for intelligent women gun owners” according to its mind-boggling twitter biog – whom Sandra apprehends in the throes of stealing a toilet brush.
There’s a version of Hot Flushes that plays straight and tense with Sandra’s story. She’s the main earner in her household, her husband having been signed off sick years before with a damaged knee. Despite her lifetime of retail experience her smarmy Work Coach at the Job Centre is only able to offer her cleaning work on a zero-hours, paid-to-train scheme that will send her home with £3.50 per hour – that is, less than she’d get for her state pension, if she could get her state pension, which she can’t, because she’s one of the 1950s-born women hit by the accelerated rise in women’s pensionable age from 60 to 66. There’s a version of Hot Flushes in which Sandra doesn’t just hear about the campaigning group Women Against State Pension Inequality in a flippant aside from her Work Coach but speaks more clearly with those women’s voices. (I guess that’s the version I expected having seen Documental’s gorgeous show Score, about parenthood and drug addiction, also written by Lucy Bell but with the participation and storytelling inspiration of parents from Bournemouth Drug and Alcohol Team.) These more focused, more documentary-inclined versions of Hot Flushes, should they exist, almost certainly wouldn’t have me eyes-wide incredulous at the abrupt and often absurd turns of the plot, almost certainly wouldn’t name-drop Johnny Cash, set a mother-daughter argument to the stomp-slide-clap of line-dancing, or end with a fragile a capella rendition of Kenny Rogers’ melancholy hit Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town. And that’s just a cherry-pick of key events, chosen to avoid spoilers, of which there might be many.
Being honest, I spent a lot of time at Hot Flushes feeling confused to be in the presence of the kind of heavily plotted, broad-humoured theatre I don’t usually watch. Confused but within that bemusement often delighted, because there are ways in which Hot Flushes does speak with the voice of perfectly ordinary women in their 60s, whereas the theatre I do usually watch is mostly made by people in their 20s and 30s with a totally different set of concerns. There’s an exquisite moment, for instance, when Sandra talks about being “literally invisible” due to her age and care commitments, before realising “that’s what all retail staff should be”: it’s a state she’s been conditioned into both by general gender expectations and the specific demands of her career. Although the politics of the phrase “real women” is questionable, there’s also a hilarious paean to all those BHS shoppers left floundering by the closure of their favourite store. “Where do we go?” Sandra wonders. “M&S? I don’t think so.”
Lots about Sandra reminded me of my mum: also a country music fan, also born in 1956, also inclined to declare, “I’m not a socialist, I’m pissed off”, also inclined to complain at the poor standards of M&S clothing, also a fan of the department store, although in her case the lifelong commitment is to John Lewis. Bell has shaped this character with a lot of love, imbuing Sandra with the energy and rage of the women who have been marching in protest against the inequalities embedded in the seeming move towards pension equality, but also – because you can do this in the theatre – giving her the chance to wield a gun at Lady Green. Basically, Sandra gets to go wild. And there’s not an awful lot of places that a 60-year-old woman with caring duties can do that.
Hot Flushes was at The Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol, from 6-8 June. It tours to Camden People’s Theatre from 13-15 June. More info here.