There is a boom in feminist thought and opinion at the minute and Camden People’s Theatre have responded with a three-week long festival giving voice to feminist topics in a variety of medium – from discussion panels to cabaret, theatre and stand-up comedy, a range of both female and male artists delve into the complexities of ‘the feminist issue’.
Last Thursday I made my way down to Camden People’s Theatre to catch both ‘Pretty Ugly’ and ‘The Fanny Hill Project’; two provocative and unsettling productions which left my head in a spin as I walked away at the end of the evening.
‘Pretty Ugly’, devised and performed by Louise Orwin, was a disturbing and revelatory experience. Using video projection, music and live performance Orwin led us into a world of teenage insecurity and the phenomenon of teenage girls seeking validation online. Part social experiment and part journey of self-discovery, this multi-media exploration of a disturbing online trend brought into focus themes of teen sexualisation, the loss of innocence and the dangers and intrigues of online interaction.
Whilst at times I felt unconvinced by the performance elements, I was struck with admiration for Louise’s honesty and bravery in portraying her own vulnerability and desire for affirmation; and as a piece of social commentary is was especially poignant. Juxtaposition of child’s toys with adult themes, naivety with experience and praise with derision all exposed the unhappy reality of a very human need for contact and validation. What further augmented the performance was the palpable feeling of discomfort within the audience as we watched real-life online interactions and became aware of our own voyeurism as we watched Louise on stage. A revealing, honest and important piece of work, it’s a real shame that less people will feel compelled to see this kind of theatre.
Next up on the bill was ‘The Fanny Hill Project’ (a.k.a Never Ever Have I Ever…been a prostitute), produced and performed by Theatre State. Lulling the audience into a false sense of frivolity this production combined real-life experience with fiction, creating a witty and disturbing fusion of the real with the surreal. A stark exposé of the exploitation of women this production set the real life experiences of a theatre intern in New York (Tess Seddon, played by herself) alongside the fictional story of a young orphan in London (Fanny Hill, played by Cheryl Gallacher).
Both women are driven to sexually exploiting themselves by necessity and circumstance – but while one delivers her account with a somewhat embarrassed and truthful honesty, the other titillates us with a breathy, wide-eyed storytelling. Presided over by two blank-stared ‘puppet masters’ both women are driven to perform and expose themselves with a growing momentum which culminates in a nightmarish frenzy in which we see Fanny being shot in the face repeatedly by plastic penis water guns. Initially this provoked some nervous laughter, and then an uncomfortable silence. This moment highlight’s the production’s key strength, which was the combination of humour with frankness – and I was really impressed by Theatre State’s ability to at once break down the fourth wall whilst simultaneously creating a surreal alternate reality on stage. This fusion of then and now, fact and fiction worked brilliantly, and it’s this kind of innovation and creativity which makes me hungry for more theatre which challenges convention and questions reality in this way.
From both productions that night I felt we got brave theatre-making that gave me a heightened awareness of the fact that Theatre provides a space where you cannot / do not judge. These very honest and socially relevant performances confront difficult issues unashamedly, and I walked away feeling very strongly that I had watched something important.
I urge you to make your way to Camden People’s Theatre to catch the rest of the festival, and make sure to keep an eye out for future work from both Louise Orwin and Theatre State. Links below to the various websites’ for the theatre and performers – if you made it to either of the shows I’d love to hear what you thought.