“The comedy is frequent, and welcome. Because there are things here that are painful to listen to”
It is Monday evening. I am going to see Fitter at Soho Theatre, but I am killing time in a bookshop. I pick up a book about Dorothy Parker and flip through the pages. The first one I stop to read contains the poem “Symptom Recital”. And, all the way from 1936, Dorothy Parker strikes a chord when she says:
‘I shudder at the thought of men.’
Mary Higgins and Ell Potter also shudder at the thought of men. Their previous show, Hotter – a celebration/exploration/reclamation of bodies – was based on interviews with just about everyone except cis men. Obviously. Why would they want to speak to men? Beside, men don’t need a show.
Or maybe they do.
‘Maybe everyone needs a show.’
Part verbatim theatre, part performance art and part confession, Fitter is based on interviews with cis, trans, and masculine presenting men of all ages. Higgins and Potter ask them about their lives (emotional and physical), and use their answers to create a show that challenges popular misconceptions.
The audience’s expectations are dismantled at the same time as the performers’. Higgins and Potter know what the answer to their first question – ‘Would you rather be hard or soft?’ – will be. Until it ends up being the opposite. Emotional men don’t exist. Until they’re spotted crying at X Factor. It’s a well-known fact that men just want sex. Until they shock us by celebrating the emotional connection between themselves and their sexual partner.
Higgins and Potter lip-sync loving words between partners, recreate fights between pre-teen boys and play everyone from eight year olds to middle aged football fans. They also do a dance routine about douching. Which is one of the many gloriously silly moments that make this show so fun, in spite of its seriousness. Keeping the stage clear of set (with the exception of a small but significant green box), they fill it instead with energetic musical interludes that both add to the narrative and provide comic relief.
The comedy is frequent, and welcome. Because there are things here that are painful to listen to. Not just because they are beautifully written, not just because they are sensitively performed – but because they are true. Yes, some men are trash. Some are beyond trash, straying into “irredeemable” territory. But others are sensitive and thoughtful and kind. And they deserve to be uplifted. Fitter does not shy away from interrogating either. Instead, it celebrates the vulnerability of human life, the joys and fears of the individual, and the experience of coming together to watch two women redefine the male stereotype (and draw beards on each other).
On the bus home, I re-read “Symptom Recital”. It turns out that the relatable line is actually a rhyming couplet, paired with:
‘I’m due to fall in love again.’
I don’t think Fitter will make you fall in love with men. But it might help you understand them. And that, in and of itself, is a very valuable thing.
Receiving its UK premiere at the Arcola Theatre, Pulitzer Prize finalist Lisa D’Amour’s spoken and sung Anna Bella Eema is an incredible piece of storytelling that leaves you open-mouthed – sometimes with wonder and often with mystification.
D’Amour has reworked the play since its 2001 first appearance in Texas and Jessica Lazar’s direction gleefully embraces the curiosity of a wild play that is probably undefinable. But even if we are not always entirely certain of what is going on, the production itself is magnificently polished with three central performances to make you sit up and take notice.
Anna Bella Eema is described as a ghost story for three bodies with three voices. If trying to pin a label on such an eccentric and esoteric work is even worth doing, the nearest one might manage is that it’s a feminist post-modern Samuel Beckett, though even he might have balked at including werewolves, talking foxes, traffic inspectors and a girl made out of mud in the same play.
The audience arrives to discover the three performers (identified only as One, Two and Three in the text) seated on three chairs on a solid rectangle that could define the area of the trailer in which they live or might represent something altogether more earthy and basic. The small set (Anna Lewis) is packed with personal belongings and other items that are sometimes struck or shaken to produce dynamic sound effects.
The performers rarely move from these chairs but colourfully narrate the story of an agoraphobic mum and her sassy ten-year-old daughter who are the only residents of a trailer park which is due to be demolished in favour of a new highway. Perhaps in a bid to ward off the approaching evil the young girl creates a mud girl, or golem, who becomes a friend, an alter-ego and a representation of creative indocility.
The result is a production with hypnotic intensity that doesn’t always work or strike home in the way it should (the fault of the play itself as much as anything), but which has a constant freshness and fascination.
As the young mother who has become a recluse in her trailer, almost oblivious to the world outside, Beverly Rudd is a commanding figure. Unpredictable and ferocious, yet delicate, her Irene/One speaks as easily about being visited by a werewolf as she does seeing a social worker. We sense that the world she inhabits (as trapped in her home as Nell is in her dustbin in Beckett’s Endgame) is often beyond her comprehension and everything she says and does is a deluded retreat from reality.
Equally compelling is Gabrielle Brooks as the precocious and imaginative daughter Anna Bella/Two, a lively and cheeky portrayal of a young girl on her own voyage of discovery, especially during a five-day coma. Brooks shows us a girl as eager to escape the confines of her existence as her mother is to be imprisoned by it.
Natasha Cottriall’s Anna Bella Eema/Three has an air of the mythic but also a down to earth impertinence that reflects the dreams of her “creator” as she changes the lives of the people around her forever.
Music and sound designer Tom Foskett-Barnes is the unseen fourth performer, as a scintillating soundscape is produced in music and effects which are as important to the narrative as the lines themselves.
In some ways this is an inscrutable coming of age story, in others the theme is broader (the invasion of the all-American dream, shades of last year’s film The Florida Project), with all three females being aspects of each other, with a keen desire to fight the unrelenting destructive tide of progress.
Anna Bella Eema’s otherworldly and magical perspectives in this Atticist and Ellie Keel co-production with the Arcola may often lead to bewilderment, but even in the confusion this is American Gothic with a touch of the outlandish, poetic and profound.