Review – Her Naked Skin, National Theatre

Wednesday 30 July 2008

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.

Not tonight however, despite having been warned by ordinary – member – of – the – public Graham (who had seen it the previous night) that Her Naked Skin was “on the Fram scale of tedious”.

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.

Here is an example of how to employ it in a sentence: “Afterlife was off the Fram Scale”.

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.)


19 Responses to “Review – Her Naked Skin, National Theatre”

  1. Simone Says:

    @ WEW: Love the Fram Scale and Bagnold Barometer reference, that’s patented West End Whingers stuff for you! Do you expect to get royalties if the reference is used outside WEW?

  2. Penny Says:

    I make your Cranford alumni count five in as many weeks!

  3. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    All royalties from the Bagnold Barometer and Fram Scale will go towards Andrew’s restoration, it’s similar to the Theatre Restoration Levy although a somewhat lost cause…

  4. @ Penny: Who have we missed? Atkins, Dillon, Annis, Manville and…?

  5. Pirrip Says:

    Thank you, thank you for that hilarious review. Saw the play last night and whilst I’m first in line for anything suffrage-related (believe me, I went as one to a ‘great women’-themed fancy-dress hen party) the play left me cold. And who’d have thought that humble spud-peeling activity could be so NOISY? Let’s not forget ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ Rose and Lady Elizabeth’s dalliance with the suffrage movement too … second only to Lady Marge going down on TITANIC.

  6. Denis Says:

    Saw this dirge on Wednesday. Who knew that you could make the Suffragettes and live lesbians on stage so boring? The only thing that kept me awake was the Skippy impersonations of some silly woman in front of me aghast at the heavy petting on stage. The acting is good but jings, what an almightily boring waste of time. So many small scenes going nowhere. No drama. No tension. Nothing to say. Made House of Elliot look like Trainspotting.

  7. shirley Says:

    Why are people so cruel when they comment, most people do not reply constructivly.

  8. Penny Says:

    Doh, should have mentioned it in my previous comment. The fifth Cranfordian is Alex Jennings. Or maybe you were only counting the indomitable corset-wearing Amazons of that parish?

  9. Penny – were there men in Cranford? Didn’t notice.

    But you are, of course, technically correct. Five in five weeks. Very good. Glad someone is paying attention so we don’t have to.

    Thanks Penny.

  10. david Says:

    Asplendid review – since you almost exactly agree with my impressions. Well-staged, pretty well acted (especially the lead) bu the love affair took to much prominence over the suffragette narrative. I thought some of the dialogue was a bit dubiously downwardly dumbed. But the end was moving enough and justified the longeurs before it.

  11. Jane Darcy Says:

    So glad to read all these comments. Bored to tears on Thursday seeing HNS and so was bemused to read Michael Billington’s rave review and 4 stars yesterday. Fram Scale much more accurate. Several pointless scenes – rifle practice – why? women prisoners lining up for bath – why? and you are so right about the lack of any point, political or dramatic, in the end of the love affair. I even ended up hating the elaborate set, and dreaded the re-emergence of the two armchairs from underneath, signalling yet another wooden encounter between the Cains.

  12. Kate Foy Says:

    Yep, you got it in one, with Susan Engels as head girl.

    The preview night I saw it, the battleship-like set took out a table and lots of glasses. Adrian Rawlins then swigged from a surviving bottle … hope they kept it in. It got a genuine laugh.

    Love your Fram and Bagnold scales!

  13. […] short: not as bad as Fram (see the Framometer at the WestEnd Whinger’s site – and note we actually stayed through the interval though I would left if this hadn’t been my […]

  14. @ Penny. We are ashamed to note that we missed a key Cranford Amazon in our recent theatre-going restrospective. The otherwise unremarkable Afterlife featured one Selina Griffiths (who played Caroline Tomkinson in Cranford) as Gusti Adler. Her mother is Annette Crosbie. Thanks to Neil for the tip-off.

  15. Penny Says:

    Yikes missed that one! Also Gusti Adler marvellous character name.

    What will you do if you manage to get the full pack of Cranfordians? Is it even possible?

  16. I sense a Cranford themed drinking game in there somewhere…

  17. […] and boy, this play is not really going to stand any chance, and not when you take out their Fram Scale. I absolutely share the Whingers sentiments about the play. I do think it was an interesting subject […]

  18. Jane Winchester Says:

    You simply come across as a bunch of truly narcissistic, bitter little would be ‘theatre people’ who are clearly ‘would be’ actors, who have nothing better to do than comdemn those fine enough to actually work! Your criticisms are immature (oh, one of you male critics is thinking of becoming a lesbian? How profound!) and it is most unlikely that any of you will ever work in theatre. Save yourselves the agony and make sure you get equal, if not better training as waiters, because you will not be members of the theatre profession, or any of its related areas- that is for sure! And what an incredible waste of space this is!

  19. […] *The Whingers once accidentally spent a most enjoyable drunken evening in a bar with Ms Lenkiewicz who turned out to be a jolly good sport which was just as well. […]

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