“As much as round RoundPeg tries to revitalise this unsettling play, it feels heavy handed and melodramatic”
Art or porn? That is the question. Anthony Neilson’s controversial play The Censor, makes a London comeback to explore all things taboo. Female-driven RoundPeg Theatre, responsible for its return, try taking a feminist stance on the work’s gender power play. Yet it’s difficult to tell if the fault lies with the writing, the performances or direction in not fully achieving the desired affect, making this production quite unbearable at times to watch (and that’s not the extremely close-up explicit content).
A female film director finds herself in the office of a censor, a man whose decision determines whether her work will be given the green light for release. Due to the film’s highly pornographic nature, the censor point blank writes it off as a no go, but can Miss Fontaine convince him to see beyond the images and at its artistic dissection of humanity instead? As she tries to educate him past the black and white and into the grey areas, more unravels about the censor’s personal life and the repressed feelings he’s held back.
The two female roles, Miss Fontaine and the censor’s wife, in particular, feel very one dimensional. As mentioned previously, it’s difficult to tell whether it’s the writing or the performances that don’t quite work. I feel it’s a little of both. Chandrika Chevli as The Wife is far too underused and whose brief moments on stage with Jonathan McGarrity seem fruitless. It would be more interesting to see their relationship developed further. Suzy Whitefield’s turn as the allusive Miss Fontaine can often come across forced whilst McGarrity as the censor lacks a sense of authority to initially clash and then be overruled by Miss Fontaine’s dominance.
The twenty-two year old play does feel aged in certain ways. Due to the growth of explicit images surrounding us and being easily accessible, the ‘scenes of a sexual nature’ in The Censor seem to have lost their potency. Undeniably there is still a certain frisson in having such acts simulated live, particularly the infamous defecation scene, but overall our desensitisation to the like, has made it far less shocking than back in 1997 when first staged.
The projection screens to the corners of the space, showing the erotic, semi-graphic scenes from ‘the film’ could have been used with far more powerful intention. It does help to set the dark, ambiguous atmosphere but ends up feeling monotonous and ineffectual as generally the same brief clip repeats for denoting transitions or sexual acts on stage.
As much as round RoundPeg tries to revitalise this unsettling play, it feels heavy handed and melodramatic. Although there are certainly problems with the writing itself, such as questionable character actions or improbable situations that occur, the more interesting questions that Neilson does raise feels undeveloped and not presented clearly enough by the company.
“Bryony Buckle may be ‘astoundingly average’ but Vulvarine’s cast and direction are anything but”
Vulvarine: A New Musical is a superhero comic musical parody which tells the story of Bryony Buckle (Allie Munro), a young woman who lives an exceedingly ordinary life in the uneventful town of High Wycombe. Bryony checks tax codes by day and sips red wine with her cat Elton (Robyn Grant) by night. That is, however, before she is transformed into the superhero Vulvarine following a hormone injection at the doctor’s and a convenient lightning strike.
Following the discovery of an error in the tampon tax, Vulvarine, her best friend Poppy (Katie Wells) and her pretty boy love interest Orson Bloom (Jamie Mawson) must take on the misogynistic Mansplainer (Robyn Grant) and his wife Sonya (Steffan Rizzi) before women in High Wycombe and beyond are made subservient by his Hormone-a-beam.
Through Vulvarine: A New Musical, Artistic Director Robyn Grant aims to highlight the extensive use of hormonal medication amongst women. Grant herself was on the contraceptive pill for period pain from the age of fourteen and it was only ten years later that she became aware of its terrifying side effects. With the rising wave of abortion restrictions in America, Grant hopes Vulvarine will inspire women to take control of their own bodies and revolt against those who wish to restrict womankind. Despite these powerful themes, Vulvarine: A New Musical never takes itself too seriously and succeeds in engaging its audience with these important topics in a fun and light-hearted way.
Vulvarine: A New Musical is exceedingly funny. The cast take a little while to warm up, but the show is soon in full swing with a laugh a minute. The dialogue is quick and hyperaware of the superhero clichés it draws on. Instances of actors breaking the fourth wall such as when a stagehand lifts a chair to demonstrate Vulvarine’s super-strength before looking at the audience, going ‘oops!’ and running off stage are wonderfully humorous additions.
The stage consists of a simple cardboard townscape for most of the show but becomes more elaborate towards the performance’s end with the incorporation of a (cardboard) control panel and shark tank when the protagonists infiltrate Mansplainer’s lair. The props (Hugh Purves) are a lot of fun and include a plastic pigeon on a stick which transports Bryony and Poppy to a park bench and a muppet-style puppet acting as Elton the Cat. At times the stage does seem rather crowded, but the cast work well with the space they have.
Grant shines throughout and Munro is a strong lead. Wells, Mawson and Rizzi all provided excellent support with the former electrifying the stage with the solo ‘Boys will be Boys’. Other notable songs are the Avenue Q-esque ‘Licking My Anus’ performed by Elton the Cat and ‘Who’s that Girl’ performed by both Bryony and Poppy and nicely threaded throughout the musical in multiple reprises. Bryony Buckle may be ‘astoundingly average’ but Vulvarine’s cast and direction are anything but.
Reviewed by Flora Doble
Photography by Lidia Crisafulli
King’s Head Theatre until 6th July then UK Tour continues