Forge – The Vaults
Reviewed – 23rd February 2020
“Grogan and Higman’s script allows serious debate alongside gratifying comedy”
A word of warning passed down the long queue of people waiting to see the new play “Belly Up” at the VAULT Festival – “This is massively inappropriate!”
That didn’t stop a full house wanting to see Julia Grogan and Lydia Higman’s extraordinarily funny and ingeniously written piece, on at the Forge venue for just one night.
It covers similar ground to “The Welkin,” currently being staged at the National Theatre, but in its 60 minutes manages to be a better piece of work, gives a clearer perspective of the wider historical context and has more deep-rooted issues to raise about women’s rights through the ages.
Set at the end of the 18th Century, when George III was in the “middling” stage of his infamous madness, we are introduced to lesbian maidservant Liberty Whiteley (the show’s co-writer Julia Grogan, satisfyingly assured, winningly likeable and utterly credible) who is about to be hanged for murder.
We flash back a year to February 14th 1795 as the engagement party for her master’s conceited foppish son, Barnaby Wallace Croft, and her own sweetheart is being planned. As we see an increasingly outrageous Barnaby (a brilliantly awful creation by Michael Bijok) flirting with other women and generally being a dandy dick (“lay off the canapes as you’ll have a coq monsieur later!”) Liberty confesses in one of her audience asides, “You’ll probably guess who I murdered that night…”
When he tries to force himself upon her Liberty puts a permanent end to his advances: “It was Liberty Whitley in the parlour with the candlestick.”
Realising that she can earn a reprieve if she is pregnant Liberty “pleads the belly” – but then has to find a way of making her claim a reality while stuck in a women’s ward. The only way to escape being banged up in Newgate Prison is to, well, be banged up in Newgate Prison and the best chance on offer is to find a willing accomplice in the insanity ward (into which Liberty is immediately thrown on proclaiming, “I’m a woman and I deserve the right to vote!”).
There’s a wonderful array of colourful characters in this romp, all richly played by five actors, ranging from an S&M jailer (Bijok again) and tart with a heart cellmate Nancy (Anna Brindle, who also excels as Liberty’s lover) to the God-fearing fellow prisoner Keith (a sublime Matthew Grainger) and the resplendent “Mayfair prostitutes” serving up the prison grub (Grainger and Bijok). Annabel Wood is a helpful addition, underlining several of the historical, medical and legal niceties in her various roles.
Design (Hazel Low) is basic but fully functional. In a very limited acting area with little in the way of set, authentic costumes and occasional props (such as movable prison bars) serve their purpose surprisingly well.
Modern language is used effortlessly along with a wildly contrasting mix of musical styles (Noughties pop and a classical string version of Like a Virgin among the playlist, adeptly arranged and composed by Georgina Lloyd-Owen) but nothing seems in the slightest bit incongruous such is the flair and quality of the writing and extremely tight and polished direction by Lauren Dickson.
Grogan and Higman’s script allows serious debate alongside gratifying comedy, which is pleasantly daft without falling to the excesses of Carry On bawdiness.
This is a significant work that has much to say about the treatment of women, justice, choice and sacrifice as well as unjust systems that create victims. The final message about the fight having some optimistic outcomes through history but still not being over is as powerful as you will find in any full-blown drama, let alone a one-off fringe production beneath the railway tracks.
It will be a big disappointment and a real surprise if this Daring Hare Productions show doesn’t develop into considerably greater things. The expert team behind it is surely fearless enough to make it so.
Reviewed by David Guest