“There’s a huge range of emotions evoked here, and the script is sharp enough that we see these feelings constantly shifting and evolving as they are expressed”
Written by Joanna Murray-Smith and directed by Sarah Howard, Bombshells is a one-woman show that tells the stories of four very different women. These characters are each brought to life in four separate monologues brilliantly delivered by Laura Ashenden.
Meryl Louise Davenport is struggling with three children, one of them a young baby, and wrestling with conflicting feelings about being a bad mother. She desperately loves her kids but feels judged by other mums. And she desperately needs a coffee…
Tiggy Entwistle is at a public-speaking event, making a presentation about her keen appreciation of cacti, but keeps being distracted by her recent break-up. She finds that succulents and lost love suddenly have everything in common…
Australian Theresa McTerry is about to be married. Squeezing into her wedding dress, she tried to convince us – and herself – how much she adores Ted and cannot wait to be his wife. But then it dawns on her what she’s letting herself in for…
Finally, Zoe Struthers is a Brooklyn-based singer, on tour and on stage, trying to keep her career afloat…
In a highly expressive performance that draws out every nuance of the clever writing, Laura Ashenden reveals the joy and despair that lurk in unexpected moments just beneath the surface of daily life. There’s a huge range of emotions evoked here, and the script is sharp enough that we see these feelings constantly shifting and evolving as they are expressed. A roller-coaster spectacle this energetic must have been exhausting to deliver across eighty minutes, but you’d never know it from the sheer energy on display.
The simple set consists of a dressing table, a clothes rail and – most strikingly – a colour-coded circle of high-heeled shoes from within which the monologues are relayed. Two of the pieces feature live music from a singer/guitarist and a drummer, which adds a certain richness to the ‘wedding party’ and ‘live-in-concert’ segments.
The opening story is the most effective and really gets inside the pressures and pains of new parenthood, with all the self-doubt and uncertainty that accompanies a life turned upside down. The closing story seems the weakest, with the least room for its protagonist to develop, perhaps because the parts that are sung prevent the rapid-fire verbal outpourings that make the other personalities so three-dimensional.
The strongest monologues blend brash humour and insightful observation with a touching pathos and vulnerability. The characters become fully believable people you recognise and sympathise with. By peering into these four women’s inner lives, Bombshells helps us better understand our own.
Reviewed by Stephen Fall
Photography by Robert Piwko
Cockpit Theatre until 18th August as part of Camden Fringe 2019
“Jones and Sullivan have done Beckett justice – a daunting achievement of which many have fallen short”
If you’re not familiar with this Samuel Beckett play, first staged in New York in 1961, it follows the daily routine of Winnie, a woman buried up to her waist in a mound of earth. She has a bag of little things that help her get through the day: a toothbrush, a hand mirror, makeup, a hat, a music box. She does her best to maintain her cheery demeanour in spite of everything. Winnie’s husband, Willie, is ever-present, but mostly hidden behind the mound. A masterpiece of absurdism, Happy Days is essentially an hour and forty-minute monologue.
To say the play is challenging, both technically and dramatically, is an understatement. An exercise in anti-theatre, it purposefully breaks all the rules: it’s static, without plot, quiet, adagio, and abstruse. These are all pitfalls for theatremakers, but Robert Pennant Jones’s production with Ruth Sullivan (Winnie) transcends. Jones and Sullivan have done Beckett justice – a daunting achievement of which many have fallen short. They’ve beautifully expressed his insight into empty lives, and people starving for genuine connection. The play feels as relevant today as it was sixty years ago.
The set design (Max) is striking – immediately impressive when you enter the space. Where soft earth or sand is normally used for the mound, Max has crafted a dramatic mountain of sharp shale. The ominous black rocks emphasise the harsh and unforgiving nature of Winnie’s imprisonment. The design leans somewhat into the interpretation that the play’s setting could be Hell.
Peggy Ashcroft, a famous former Winnie, once described the role as “the Hamlet for female actors.” Ruth Sullivan’s performance is as exceptional as the part demands. She expertly plays the veneer of chipper positivity over a profound sadness – the desperate strain beneath Winnie’s apparently breezy attempts to communicate with Willie (Ian Hoare). With the lightest touch, she allows us glimpses into the vastness of Winnie’s loneliness. Tears pool in her eyes before she pulls back with an apologetic smile and sigh: “Oh well… Mustn’t complain…” Sullivan portrays an intellectual, curious, loving woman deprived of stimulation. Neglected. Her joy at the smallest shred of acknowledgement is heart-breaking. Her vulnerability is devastating.
Sullivan’s flawless timing shows a deep sense for the rhythms of Beckett’s language. Her characterisation is so natural it ideally contrasts with the bizarreness of her situation. A dense, enigmatic, nearly two-hour monologue dares an audience not to be bored. But Sullivan is captivating. She lifts the lines, bringing out the poetry in Beckett’s writing. Winnie is delightful, silly, and endearing. She is also acutely suffering, and holding back oceans of anguish. Sullivan’s ability to communicate all of this, while stuck in place from the waist (and later neck) down, is marvellous.
If you’re a Beckett fan, do not miss this show. If you’re new to Beckett, grab this opportunity to discover his genius. Sullivan’s superlative performance deserves a packed house. It’s one you won’t forget.