Guest reviewer: Ellen Casey
WOMANS is a story within a story; Leta is just trying to pass her Module 4 History exam when she accidentally-on-purpose invokes two Muses, the goddesses of inspiration, to help her wow the examiners. However, these Muses have a story – and an agenda – of their own.
Leta lives in BC Rome, and with the help of two (morally questionable) Muses, battles Caesar, the Senate and an interestingly named gladiator to make her mark. But will she ever be remembered?
It’s fitting that the story takes place within the context of an examination – there’s an almost academic undertone here, despite the comedy and audience participation. With WOMANS, the question that’s being asked is: who have we forgotten? Who has been written out of history? And how can we get them back? WOMANS in many ways is slapstick mythological nonsense (which is great), but underneath the fun it’s trying to do something interesting and almost subversive. Whether that always succeeds is questionable, but the effort in itself feels original.
They don’t have a lot of props to work with – a fact that they poke fun at (for example, referencing the restrictive copyright laws surrounding the gladiator theme tune by just having to hum it themselves), but there is still some really creative stage design here. You will be amazed how much can be simulated – stairs, chariots, commentator booths – with just some fitted sheets. They seem incongruous as a prop at first, but by the end I was incredibly impressed by how easily they could spark the imagination.
A lot of this, of course, is down to the sheer gusto Higginson, Keen and Doble put into their performance. They hit every beat with (near) perfection, tapping, singing and dancing around the stage in a facsimile of a much larger production. Though they may not have much budget to work with, it’s really clear how much effort has gone into every minute aspect – the lyrics, the staging, the choreography (it’s really pleasing to see this extended beyond just dance sequences).
Another fun part of the performance is the audience participation. It is judged excellently; too much can be jarring, and often boring for an audience, but WOMANS picks its moments well. One of the funniest parts of the entire play comes with an interaction between a performer and an audience member, with shouted (sometimes exasperated) cues from the Muses. It’s a creative way of subbing in a performer needed for that sequence, and the quick improvisation from the Muses really sells it. In fact, there are a few other times when the performers interact with the audience – and even allow them to steer the course of a scene, ‘choose your own adventure’ style – that were a hit. Ancient history is a weird and wonderful topic to try and delve into, not to mention satirise, but there is definitely more than enough here for a more mainstream (less nerdy) audience to appreciate.
The only unfortunate part of this production, apart from some tightening up on cues, is the lack of budget; there is a lot of potential for WOMANS to be something incredibly entertaining and thoughtful, but unfortunately the DIY sound effects and props can only go so far. If and when there is some more scope to strengthen the backbone of WOMANS, it could be something really great.
My verdict? Imaginative and fun, a real treat that lacks only some set design backup.
WOMANS (like Romans but with a ‘W’) runs at the VAULT Festival until 3 February 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.