Henna Night was written by Amy Rosenthal back in 1998 and the staging reflects that. It was a shot of pure nostalgia. The set is a sanitised version of Tracy Emin’s unmade bed (empty cigarette packet on the floor and some crumpled up tissues). There is a blue-washed front door; a refrain of an Elbow song; an abundance of Henna dye, a futon. It’s all so gloriously ‘90s.
These days, many of my theatrical experiences take place in converted buildings decked out with recyclable materials; clutching a warm Red Stripe whilst anticipating something ‘cutting edge’ – the re-framing of ‘issues’ within the language of social media, or the ‘historicising’ of the contemporary by harking back to an uncomplicated, non-digital era (as a practitioner I am guilty of all the above).
Henna Night however reminded me of my first forays into theatre. The play is a simple, clever and sassy duologue between two strong and likeable female characters. It’s about Judith – a suicidal, heart-broken and severely depressed woman who is visited by her ex lover’s new flame. Teased out from a veneer of clipped civility, the encounter between the two women is intriguing. After all, who hasn’t fantasised wildly about encounters with ex-lovers’ lovers? Or is that just me? (And Amy Rosenthal.)
Hatty Preston, as Judith, delivers her lines with a subtle unhinged aggression. I was glad that Preston did not lapse into melodrama or hysteria. It helped that Judith’s lines are consistently witty. Rosenthal’s foreword on the programme states that she has always tried to tread, “the porous line between comedy and tragedy”, and in this play, she does so successfully. When Judith spits lines such as: “You should be fat but you’re not… you should be fucking obese and riddled with guilt”, I felt the pang of her humiliation whilst simultaneously guffawing.
And Ros, the ‘other’ woman – prim and reasonable with her thinly veiled selfish altruism. We should hate her, but we don’t. Played by Nicola Daley with warmth, served well by her dulcet Scottish tones. Although perhaps that’s my nostalgia creeping in again. Having lived in Glasgow for ten years, I smiled to myself at that unmistakable actorly Glasgow twang that only a graduate of the Royal Scottish Acadamy of Music could have. There was that lovely scene too, where Ros washes the henna dye out of Judith’s hair whilst they listen to Elbow (on a CD in a portable stereo!). Effective, if a little heavy on the dramatic metaphor – AFTER THE BIT IN THE TEXT WHERE ROS READS OUT THE BACK OF THE HENNA DYE PACKET AND TALKS ABOUT ITS HEALING PROPERTIES. This is a common theatrical device in this play, but then again, Rosenthal’s foreword flags up that she regards Henna Night as ‘a youthful play about first love’ and that she wrote it sixteen years ago. And so watching through my rose-tinted nostalgia glasses, I forgave this.
Nearing the end, there were more metaphors about bonfire night, fireworks, sparklers; connoting virility, new beginnings, but the finale is calm, unfussy (with that swelling refrain of Elbow music), and I thought that this was a good way to end it. Despite the play’s murky contents – touching on touchy issues: mental illness, the pressure to be beautiful, clever, balanced, successful, not being left on the shelf – it was rather life affirming. It didn’t resort to dank nihilism or melodrama. These subjects were dealt with humorously, and this was okay. It was a safe play, and that was its strength, but also its weakness. To end with an aptly chosen metaphor – it reminded us that when the going gets tough we simply roll up our sleeves, dye our hair a new colour, keep calm and carry on.