Get together a group of women who’ve lived, loved and lost, mix in some alcohol and the freedom from inhibition that comes the luxury of “us” time, and you’ll hear things that make young males blush to their fingertips.
I can only conclude that the writer and director of The Ark, The Bride and the Coffin, who happens to be a bloke, has been listening in to many such evenings. For what is distinctive about Andrew Neil’s three discrete, if linked by theme and motif, short plays is that the characters always say the unsayable, always complete those sentences usually left to trail away into embarrassed silence.
Anal sex, penis size, menstruation, miscarriage and more – none of the gory details are veiled in silence. This is the female experience laid out in pain and anger, and many, many laughs. (Happily this is all talk, not action.)
The production company, inaccurately called fluff, was formed two years ago to promote “good writing and roles for women”, and there’s a lot of both here, at The Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington, north London, for the six-strong female cast to put their hearts into.
The first play is set on the newly completed Noah’s Ark. The three wives of Noah’s sons – Abigail (Sarah Finigan), Bethsheba (Fiona Putnam) and Cush (Rebecca Dunn) – are desultorily doing make-work, listening to their menfolk fight and waiting for a change in the weather: current report brilliant sunshine.
The often naive Cush, the youngster of the party, asks of the predicted coming flood: “Is that what will really happen.” Abigail replies drily: “That is the plan.”
But then a disaster in the kitchen – Cush has killed the only ram on board (it is Eve and the Apple all over again) – raises the stress level and loosens inhibitions. Talk about sheep reproduction soon turns to talk of the human varieties, and some home truths come emerge.
The unsatisfied Bethsheba, whose brains fall short of her sex-drive, ends up lusting first over Cush’s husband, then over the aged Noah himself, which brings on the joke that will re-occur in each setting. It is the one about the old man who holds up four fingers to his young bride on their wedding night …
When that is played out, Cush avows that, despite the bedroom noises heard by the others, she is following Leviticus’s prohibitions on women’s “uncleanliness”, which provokes revelations that the others find uncomfortable, even in thought.
Then, in Play Two, we suddenly jump forward three thousand years, more or less, and we’re at a working-class – very working-class – wedding. The gauche young bridesmaid Doreen (Emily North) asks the “mature” bride Fenella (a charismatic creation by Annie Julian) if she loves her husband to be: “I feed him. He shags me. We bought a flat,” is her answer.
Doreen, in her shoulder-twisting, unsure, way is just as blunt: “Two Bacardis and I’m anybody’s. I keep saying that and nobody listens.”
They are joined in an uncomfortable three-some by the female vicar, Eileen, victim of a very nasty stutter and a middling case of loss-of-faith. Then comes the rain and the Flood, and the fear of hell, and that weirdly hung-up Leviticus, and we’re back with all of the Ark themes.
These first two plays are richly comic. The actors display considerable flair in their timing, and strength of characterisation in the unforgiving confines of The Old Red Lion. (Seating only three rows deep leaves an actor with nowhere to hide.) Neill’s direction is formally geometric, but effective.
Then, after the interval, the mood turns. The cardboard coffin that had been a rich prop for physical comedy in The Bride is now the subject, and a six-strong female family is falling apart around it. The jokes gradually fade away, and we are left with anguished collapse.
This, sadly, is the weakest part of the script. It is all the usual stories about dysfunctional families, done with the same blunt honesty as the first two parts, but otherwise seeming to have little relation to them. There’s a final religious line no doubt intended to tie this all together – Original Sin and all of that, but it is inadequate to do the job.
There is still some fine acting here. Charlotte Donnelly as Lotte, the central character of the conflict, is particularly powerful, and Putnam as the polite middle-class butt of the family, Georgina, gets all of the laughs that are to be had.
And that one joke that keeps re-occurring?
Well the young bride asks with surprise: “You want to do it four times?”
No, says the old man, “pick a finger”.
If that joke offends you, don’t seeThe Ark. If, however, you still don’t “get it”, then do. You might learn something.
The production continues until January 28. Links: The Theatre; the company.
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