Guest reviewer: Ellen Casey
The lights come up on WOOD and we’re thrown right in; it’s the middle of a porn shoot and John is trying desperately to get it up. This involves some vigorous miming with a bicycle pump, and the first of many laughs rises up from the audience. I have to confess to some trepidation stepping into WOOD; the prospect of watching an hour long play about porn, comedy or not, sounded like it could be a little wearing. Luckily, just as I was settling into the dick joke groove (don’t get me wrong – they were funny dick jokes), everything changed. WOOD is definitely not what you expect; it’s clever and risk-taking in a way I’ve rarely seen.
So what’s the twist? Midway through a dinner scene between John and his porn star wife, as all the furniture is being moved out from under them by an overzealous waitress, John loses it a little bit. The lights come up, the actors shift out of their personas – and into new ones, as they discuss what has just gone wrong at their rehearsal. This is the layer within a layer, the device which allows WOOD to scrutinise acting and directorial choices. Why is the only black woman in the cast given bit parts? What happens when she’s allowed to take the title role, and inform the character choices?
One of my favourite parts of WOOD was a reimagining of a scene we’d already gone through with – except this time with Nneka Onoye (previously seen as ‘The Waitress’ and ‘Porn Actress’) playing the part of John. Everything else is the same; the dialogue, the setting, the actress playing opposite. However, with Onoye at the helm, everything is different. It’s less comic, more absorbing; quieter, with more gravitas. Having seen Onoye in the background, always chipper, it’s even more impressive seeing her play John. It’s a real joy – and must be incredibly fun – to actually see actors slip into and inhabit their characters in this way.
There are really interesting explorations of genuine problems in the way we portray women on stage here; the way we show domestic violence (I brought a friend with me who admitted that during a certain part of the play she thought ‘oh, this again’. Happily it was immediately discussed and redressed), and particularly the lack of agency we give to women in these stories. Amazingly, WOOD also manages to be relentlessly funny – so much so that at certain points barely a minute would go by without a gut-busting laugh echoing around the room. They weave together these two elements – commentary and comedy – flawlessly. A particularly favourite moment of mine was when the harassed male writer (and previous John) throws up his hands in frustration at all the new ideas being bandied around; “But I wanted to write about toxic masculinity!” he whines. The audience roars.
My verdict? Incisive, hilarious and a true pleasure to watch.
WOOD ran at the VAULT Festival until 3 March 2019.