Sunday, 3 July 2016

Boys Will Be Boys, The Bush Theatre

"Are we allowed to take drinks in?" I ask the steward at Bush Hall, the temporary home of the Bush Theatre while the main house undergoes renovations.

"Of course", says the steward. Apparently, I haven't received the memo that 'Boys will be Boys' is a hedonistic, musical exploration of Girl Power in a man's world. Drinking is welcome. "The performance contains strobe lights", she adds as we enter the vaudeville music hall. 

Melissa Bubnic's 100 minute play unfurls in an unbroken stream of smoke, sex and six-figure deals. The audience sit at speakeasy tables, drinking in the cabaret songs which Astrid, a ball-breaking, vampy broker uses to serenade us through the ups and downs of life on the trading floor. 

A calculating seductress, Astrid has been using her "great tits" and impressive alcohol tolerance to entice new clients and win lucrative "lines". She's "the best" she tells us, downing a shot and commanding the stage with a charisma like 'Chicago's famous songstress, Velma. But when Astrid interviews Priya for a job, she brings this young Bangladeshi protégée under her wing and into the bear pit. As Priya gains in confidence and client lists, Velma, it seems, has met her Roxie. 

'Boys will be Boys' teases us with the suggestion that it is concerned with the male/female power-play. But Astrid's relationships with men are shown to be one-dimensional: she either screws them over or just screws them. And so the play refocuses elsewhere, centralising Astrid's interactions with other women; the call-girl who fills the void of a real-life gal pal and the protege who transforms from lap-dog to lioness when she starts to play the trading game for her self.

The cast is all-female but this is easy to forget this, so convincing is Helen Schlesinger's performance as asshole boss, Arthur Beale or Emily Barber's as the young 'toff' Harrison  whose Daddy is an important client. Only Kirsty Bushell (Astrid) does not multi-role as she anchors us to the piece, leading the audience through the coke-fuelled dance of the supporting characters, the chess pieces in her game of life.

For all its song and dance bravado, 'Boys will be Boys' is a delicate balancing act between the ecstatic, empowering 'wins' of Astrid's career and her growing isolation. Bubnic showcases the Armani, the restaurants and the bonuses synonymous with a broker's life but also the darker and often dangerous side. We feel sorry for Astrid but the play asks, importantly, would she inspire the same pity if she was a man? Or would we be hoping he was the one buying us a drink to take into the theatre?

Book tickets here

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Cuttin' It, The Royal Court Theatre

Shell-shocked. That would be the term to describe the collective response to Charlene James' urgent play, 'Cuttin' It' at The Royal Court. This head-on confrontation of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) left several audience members sobbing and others heading for the exit before the end. But unlike Lucy Bailey's gorily affecting 'Titus Andronicus' at The Globe Theatre in 2014, no blood is shed here. It is James' direct and purely descriptive handling of this appalling phenomenon that has garnered acclaim for her writing and for the play's heroic young actors.

14 year old Iqra has escaped to the UK from the horrors of war-torn Somalia. Her brother was killed in front of her and the village repeatedly terrorised. At her new London comprehensive she meets Muna whose earlier move to Britain allowed her to grow up with Rhianna, Drake and a teenage brand-worship of Nike. Despite their differences, both girls share a traumatic past. Both have been cut. 

Muna's violation has left her terrified for the fate of her 6-year-old sister. The play traces her attempts to confront the barbaric practice and spare her sibling an excruciating 7th birthday ceremony. But while FGM has politicised and enraged one survivor, it has broken and brain-washed the other. When Irqa suggests that being cut will be "better" for her sister, Muna explodes:

"Better? Can you actually hear yourself? Better for who?" 

By allowing the issue to divide the girls, the play's only two characters, James sets up a dialectic from within the Somalian community. Cuttin' It suggests that, along with government initiatives and the projects of Western activists, powerful protest can come from survivors themselves, willing to challenge an act still practised by their mothers and, shockingly, still practised in London. 

Adelayo Adedayo gives a rocketing performance as Muna, determined to rail against her family and this appalling tradition. Her mixture of teenage cock-eyed buoyancy and post-traumatic vulnerability is arresting. It is unbelievable that 'Cuttin' It' is Tsiom Habte's (Iqra) professional debut whose monologue about her own FGM ceremony is one of the most powerful moments of theatre I have seen this year. 

It is urgent and mobilising drama like 'Cuttin' It', that makes me want to stand outside The Royal Court with a large foam arrow, saying 'See this! Important!' Not enough people are aware of the widespread effects of FGM and the practice is woefully under-reported and under-convicted. 98% of the female Somalian population have been cut and activists from Equality suggest 137,000 women in Britain have been subjected to the practice. 

A joint production with The Young Vic, 'Cuttin' It' upholds the Royal Court's commitment to writers and subjects (like the digital paedophilia confronted in 'The Nether') which other theatres may reject as 'too hot to handle'. Iqra and Muna's scorching monologues explode the details of FGM, eyeballing the audience as they describe this "messed-up tradition". There are no shades of grey to James' handling of the subject because there are no shades of grey to FGM. 

I urge everyone to see this play.

Box Office:0207 565 5000