Reviews NationalYork Published 5 July 2016

Review: Becoming Hattie at York Theatre Royal

1st - 2nd July 2016

Arctic rolls and limited roles: Louise Jones reviews Mhairi Grealis’s play about women and weight.

Louise Jones
Becoming Hattie at York Theatre Royal. Photo: Richard Davenport.

Becoming Hattie at York Theatre Royal. Photo: Richard Davenport.

“You don’t need to fall in love or have children…if you’re fat, you’re funny.” The words are purred in that silky matter-of-fact tone, but the injustice of this fact hangs in the air as heavily as cigarette smoke in Miss Hattie Jacques’ presence. I’d have described Jacques as inimitable, but tonight Ashley Christmas really gives the Carry On star a run for her money. Christmas is tasked with bringing to life two women on the same trajectory: as well as becoming Hattie, she is also Jo – an aspiring actress who sees Jacques as her ultimate inspiration, the pinnacle of stardom for a larger woman. What binds the women closer than it seems, however, is the enduring pigeon-holing of female roles for those who aren’t a size 8, despite the different decades, they’re still staring at the same glass ceiling.

Christmas first introduces us to Jo with the unbounded enthusiasm of a child performing for their parents in the living room. It helps that we are in Jo’s old ‘70s living room, transported to her 8 year old self with unembarrassed dance-moves and second helpings of Arctic roll. At this point I did worry that the referential humour would have the effect of alienating younger audience members, but the nostalgia invoked is mainly to ensure the crowd is ready for plenty of interaction. Christmas isn’t afraid of running through the aisles to reach a spy Jo is ready to seduce or kill in her latest dream role. In having the actress on stage break free of the fourth wall, we see Jo’s escapism physically manifested simply and effectively. Of course, we also see how deluded Jo is letting herself become: these are real people she’s projecting onto, and it’s only a matter of time before something has to give.

The blurring of fiction and reality hit hardest when Jo receives a note on the Tube. It’s from a story about a fat-shaming group from a few months back, but the fact that not everybody recognises it only proves more chilling as the scene goes on. There is a titter or two when we see Jo so excited to read the note, but the laughter dies swiftly. I’ve never felt so much camaraderie when Jo – or at this point, with the fourth wall so removed, is it Christmas? – asks an audience member to tear up the note. Tearing down expectations is what these characters, and the play in a larger sense, serves to do, yet Jo’s still stuck being cast as giant spiders when she could be Lady Macbeth. She’s cast as beastly creatures because that’s how people are still expected to see her.

The lack of encouragement for Jo’s dream comes from all angles including her agent Cinda, who in Christmas’ capable hands is a forgotten Julie Walters character, a doddery darling whose timing is pitched just right for comic relief. Mhairi Grealis’ script also sets us up to expect Jo to only embody the stereotypical roles she’s be given on stage. We see her enter with the vibrancy of a bubbly best friend, she won’t stop pouring more sprinkles on her dessert, she wiggles her bottom with wild abandon. What we don’t expect is that she’s engaged, that she’s serious and really wants her career to take off.

Christmas’ performance challenges our perception of Jacques as well, and whenever we return to her she’s a little more fragile, a ball of nerves. From reminiscing on Desert Island Discs and flirting with the men on the front row, to her final days watching her ex-husband receive an award on television, we see Jacques’ eccentricities become her insecurities, her handbag less an accessory than something she can hide behind.The most arresting sequence is where we hear her account of a daytrip to Margate. Just as Jacques describes emerging in her swimming costume, Christmas strips the woman of her star quality, revealed and seen for her size only.

Christmas is an absolute powerhouse, commanding the stage even when she’s on the verge of tears. The tears feel real, they unite women – real and fictional, even late stars – in the hardships of the casting world, bound by the limited roles expected of them. The writing does run the risk of becoming repetitive, almost as if these words are making up for lost time having not been said before. It does make you wonder: how come I’ve never seen anything like this sooner?

Becoming Hattie was on at York Theatre Royal. Click here for more information. 

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Louise Jones is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Becoming Hattie at York Theatre Royal Show Info


Produced by Proteus Theatre

Written by Mhairi Grealis

Cast includes Ashley Christmas

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