“the show is so busy trying to shout about how controversial and important it is that it disregards actually saying anything of meaning”
Calf 2 Cow’s mission statement for BackPAGE on their programme sets the scene for an intellectually and emotionally provocative piece of theatre that pushes boundaries and deepens the audience’s perspectives on important issues. Unfortunately, these lofty aims are left unfulfilled by promising design that is let down by a vague and naive script from Matt Emeny.
BackPAGE follows the story of Lucky (Holly Fripp), a girl from SmallTown who gets embroiled in the sex trafficking schemes of La Pa (Michael Difford) and Scab (Colleen Hedley) in a trip to BigCity. The plot appears to riff off Alice in Wonderland as Lucky arrives in a strange world and is bandied around from situation to situation, but it lacks the specificity and detail in the world it’s trying to create to feel coherent; it contains too much absurdity to be the realistic, but never sets out the logic on which this created world operates. As such, the status quo of the world, its rules, and the consequences of actions feel muddy and undefined.
The show features a wealth of in-yer-face-esque moments containing violence, sexual assault, and other depictions designed to discomfort the audience, but they feel devoid of heft as they often give the impression of being provocative for provocation’s sake, and not to lend gravitas to deeply important issues. BackPAGE’s claim of interrogating the everyday horrors of sex trafficking feels hollow when the show appears more concerned with shocking the audience with its style than with its substance, and subsequently comes across as under-researched, exploitative, and naive to the sensitivity required in portraying such serious subject matter. This is evident in the script’s treatment of its female characters – specifically Lucky, who spends a significant portion of the play in just her underwear, and possesses almost no agency, instead always serving as a subject to someone else’s agenda and never having one of her own to pursue.
BackPAGE has a woman-centric issue displayed here through a male gaze, which is personified fully in the character of La Pa – an elite who abuses his power and privilege in heinous ways, who is never challenged, nor ever faces any negative consequences for his actions as part of a system perpetuating disturbing problems.
As La Pa, Difford appears to be having a little too much fun in his performance, heightening the sense of obliviousness to the subject matter found in the script, but other performances do help greatly to add a sense of weight to the writing. Tommy Carmichael is immensely energetic and engrossing as Lucky’s boyfriend as well as her father, and Fripp as Lucky manages to bring elements of distress and humanity to a story that feels in dire need of it.
It’s a shame that the writing wasn’t more mature and sensitive, as BackPAGE pulls off a number of elements with aplomb; Emeny’s direction and design make each scene feel unique with a minimalistic and inventively utilised set, that with the help of Connor Sullivan’s lighting paint a number of environments swiftly and effectively. However, these aspects don’t achieve their full effect as the show is so busy trying to shout about how controversial and important it is that it disregards actually saying anything of meaning.
“a static and disappointing production that chooses not to evoke any discussion of gender politics”
In a time when notions of patriarchal norms and practises are being questioned by empowered women, Jorge Robinet’s gender-swapped revival of Mark Ravenhill’s 2006 play ‘The Cut’ feels like it should be a production of topical urgency. Unfortunately, this urgency is lost in a static and disappointing production that chooses not to evoke any discussion of gender politics.
The play follows Paul (David Paulin), a man who works for the government administering some kind of archaic, violent surgical procedure known as ‘the cut’. When an unusual patient – Johanna (Francesca Ottley) – comes to him one day demanding ‘the cut’, believing she has waited her whole life for this moment, Paul’s life is seemingly sent into disarray. Throughout the play, we see the repercussions the violent act has on his home life with his wife, Susan (Molly Wheaton), and his daughter, Stephanie (Katie Warnusz-Steckel), a university student who strongly opposes the traditions that her father’s work upholds.
From the outset, this production wanted to make us, the audience, implicit in whatever violent act was about to take place. Not only were we seated in the round, but as we entered the space we were invited to vote on who should be the recipient of ‘the cut’. This allows for actors Ottley and Warnusz-Steckel to alternate characters depending on who wins the vote – Ottley won on this particular night. The voting aspect made space for all of the cast members to demonstrate an impressive amount of improvisation that was undeniably gripping, comedic and unsettling all at once. It was an exciting choice that was lost on the rest of the production. Whilst being seated in the round allowed for the actors to occasionally address us, this technique can only work if the performers and scenes are given movement; in moments of fierce dialogue between two characters, it was disappointing and alienating to be staring at a cast member’s back for ten minutes. The standstill nature of this production also meant that Ravenhill’s dialogue, which is sparse and staccato, exploiting the realist techniques of unfinished sentences and overlapping lines, slowed down the piece. Scenes dragged, became disengaging and, at times, frustrating to listen to. When you haven’t been been given the opportunity to connect to characters in the first place, it’s difficult to care about their emotional journey . Despite a lack of direction creating a stilted disconnect to certain characters, special mention must be made to Katie Warnusz-Steckel, who despite playing characters that were silent for two thirds of the play, remained captivating and compelling throughout.
In a piece with such brutal and disturbing undertones, the underwhelming nature of the action meant that key moments of the play felt limp and lacklustre; emotional breakdowns felt awkward and unjustified and the actual ‘cut’ – despite taking place next to where we sat – didn’t push far enough in a play that feels inherently violent. What the moment of ‘the cut’ did do, however, was demonstrate a slick and noteworthy element of this production – the lighting (designed by Matthew Prentice). Cued by actors with a click of the fingers, spotlights would appear, blackouts would occur, and this was one thing that gave the show a sense of urgency and pace that was absent from the physical performance.
Of course, not all gender-swapped performances must demand explicit discussion of gender politics, but the premise of this particular play leaves open the opportunity to provoke these conversations. Indeed, the space, the concept, the lighting and some moments of great acting give this production all the ingredients of an exciting show, but it ultimately falls victim to a static lack of direction that will alienate and confuse it’s audience.