There really are some rather spooky coincidences connecting the Whingers to the National’s new lesbian prison drama set against the backdrop of the fight for votes for women in Edwardian England.
Phil – who is very emancipated – feels a particular affinity with the movement: his grandmother was a suffragette; his uncle was governor of Strangeways Prison where suffragette Derby Day martyr Emily Wilding Davison was detained; Phil himself was hooked on the seventies suffragette TV drama Shoulder to Shoulder; and in the days when he cycled (before Dave and Boris made it unfashionable) he used to chain his bike to railings.
And Andrew is a Lesbian. Well, he isn’t actually one at the moment, but he hopes one day to become part of the Lesbian community once he has saved up enough to buy the little Greek hideaway he’s always hankered after.
Anyway, Her Naked Skin marks an emancipation of the Olivier Theatre because – incredible as it may seem – author Rebecca Lenkiewicz is the first “living woman writer” to have a play performed in the Olivier Theatre.
According to Nicholas Hytner the Olivier is “a theatre that requires a particular set of skills: a muscularity of rhetoric, theme and imagination that will reach a thousand people.
Well, Her Naked Skin has got a very big set, which is a start. Designer Rob Howell (Speed-the-Plow, Lord of the Rings – the Musical!) has created a magnificent, elevated, revolving prison which is turned by a team of hefty men (not women – they missed a trick there) every five seconds or so because there are lots of short scenes in this play. However, now that even the Menier boasts a revolve it seems somewhat less impressive than it would have done a week ago.
Anyway, Lady Celia Cain (Lesley Manville – excitingly our fourth Cranford alumnus in as many weeks) is an active member of the suffragette movement who strikes up a relationship with working class neophyte Eve Douglas (Jemima Rooper).
With more than a whiff of Sarah Waters about the whole thing they fall in love. There is even some on-stage, under-skirt fondling. Possibly more than fondling – the Whingers can’t imagine.
But more shockingly than any of that – and in what is possibly an altogether more significant first for the Olivier (and certainly to the Whingers) – there is live on-stage potato peeling in the prison kitchens. Whether they were carving them into a likeness of Amy Winehouse was unfortunately not clear, even from their third row stall seats.
The Whingers would have been totally engrossed were it not for a strange high-pitched beeping in the Olivier’s stalls. Was this like one of those high-falutin’ mosquito devices designed to keep teenagers from loitering in shopping centres? Has Nicholas Hytner been secretly working with his sound designers to develop a unique “Whingers frequency” audible only to camp, middle-aged bloggers? If so, it was spectacularly successful if somewhat unnecessary: the plays are often enough to clear the Whingers from the auditorium before the interval anyway.
We should explain for those not involved in modern theatre-going that “The Fram Scale” is the new measuring scheme by which all theatrical turkeys are now measured following recent EU legislation.
Conversely, theatrical excellence is now officially measured against The Chalk Garden using “The Bagnold Barometer”.
Anyway, having been warned, the Whingers had approached HNS with low expectations. So much so that they had agreed not to eat beforehand confident that they would be seated in a restaurant and dining contentedly as the rest of the audience returned after the interval.
But not only did the Whingers stay for the entire 2¾ hours – Andrew didn’t nod off once. Which when you think about it is quite impressive.
Indeed Lenkiewicz did sometimes seem to be actually pandering to the Whingers with lines such as “I’ll serve you the best wine and only charge you for house” and “I tried to tell her the history of the movement. She asked me if I’d met any famous actresses”
She even throws in (or should that be “throws up”?) a vomiting scene - not the best this year, sadly, but nice anyway to see a revival of on-stage regurgitation after the vogue for theatrical hyperemesis earlier in the year.
But it’s not all good news. Whilst most of the acting is perfectly fine (and especially from the Whingers’ new discovery in the form of the marvellous Susan Engel, right) and while HNS is moderately engaging the short scenes all seem to end rather awkwardly and flatly and the scene changes definitely need pepping up. Or it should be done on TV.
The central love story is actually quite dreary and doesn’t do justice to the more interesting suffragette movement which tends to take second place. Indeed, the really insightful stuff is in the programme.
There are also some key dramatic problems. When Lady Celia dumps Eve (warning: that was a plot spoiler) it isn’t the result of some agonising choice she has to make between Eve and her husband or Eve and the movement – she just goes off Eve. As Lady Celia is the main focus of the story, this leaves the audience out on something of an emotional limb.
Indeed, Phil’s attention began to wander terribly towards the end and he began to worry whether he’d left the iron on.
Not so emancipated after all.
Mind you, the last time he ironed anything was in 1973.
As they were struggling to remember the last time they saw the suffragette movement depicted on stage the Whingers were reminded of the criminally patriarchal revisionism of the stage version of Mary Poppins in which the sub-plot of Mrs Banks’s membership of the Women’s Social and Political Union was summarily excised – and with it went one of the film’s funniest songs. If the stage show is ever revived the Whingers will campaign for its reintroduction. If necessary, Andrew is prepared to throw himself under the Queen’s corgi.
Anyway, don’t despair. Here are Glynis Johns (Mrs Banks), Elsa Lanchester (Katie Nanna) and Hermione Baddeley (Ellen). They just don’t have casts like that any more (although sadly 44 years from now a new generation of Whingers will probably be saying the same thing about Mamma Mia. Makes you think.)