You don’t have to have ever been a tomboy to have “a-ha” moments in Tomboy Blues – The Theory of Disappointment, which opened tonight at the Ovalhouse in south London. Although your laughter will probably be a bit more rueful if you were. All you need – male or female – is to have felt frustrated about being thrust into a narrow gender box, and told you have no alternative but to stay there.
Rachel Mars and nat tarrab have devised a show that’s hard to categorise – it moves from a glassblowing warehouse to a childhood back garden, from sketch to dance, symbolism to realism, humour to cod science. There’s a distinct Edinburgh feel to this production (unsurprisingly since that’s its origins), but it sits very comfortably in a more conventional theatre space.
It’s always highly personal – the programme declares that it was born when nat was “asked for the 94th time if she was in the right toilet, and Rachel re-found the Spiderman trainers of her youth” – but never indulgent.
This is a frequently lyrical show — “feel the fingertips of tears edging over your eyelids” — and it has an acute, aware physicality. But it’s also very funny – the “muscle-man” routine done with lacy thongs instead of rubber resistance bands will stick in my mind for some time.
But it’s also thoughtful – I ended the evening, provoked by the show, in a debate over whether socialisation into “femaleness” was worse than “malenessness” – my argument was that it is because accepting “femaleness” means accepting loss of power and control, the inferior place in the room.
So yes, I did identify with “the heaven of tearing taffeta” of the tomboy climbing trees in “girl’s clothes”, with the search for the “428 lost tomboys” who disappeared with adolescence, and the demand for a hysterectomy at the arrival of the first period. But you won’t have to to enjoy this show – the ownership of a preparedness to take an open-eyed look at the way our society is still rigidly divided along gender lines will do.
The production continues at the Ovalhouse until November 19. Booking online. This is part of the Lady-Led season, four productions by women, focusing on gender issues.