“Why are women, who have the whole male world at their mercy, not funny?” It’s only 12 years since Christopher Hitchens winsomely, question-beggingly posed the query in Vanity Fair. Then it seemed daft. Now it seems antique. In part because of the glory that is Fleabag.
In unleashing her stories six years ago on the stage at the Edinburgh fringe, Phoebe Waller-Bridge created a person – unvictimised and vulnerable, comic and desperate, richly observant and blindly batting around – who remade the idea of the female voice, and showed comedy as multifaceted expression. Now, after telly triumph, she is back on stage, and it’s hard to imagine a more brilliantly condensed hour-and-a-bit. Unadulterated bliss. A consummation devoutly to be wished...
Waller-Bridge is the only person on stage: red jumper, black jeans, hair semi-up but with a straggling I’m-louche-and-available lock. She is, though, accompanied in Vicky Jones’s production by a reverberating soundscape designed by her sister, Isobel Waller-Bridge: its slamming doors and crunching bones (aaagh!) help to make the evening more than a standup (well mostly sit-down, actually) turn. This is a single-person event that squeezes a singular vision – much better written than most plays – on to the stage.
Not all episodes are here: there will be disappointment for those hungering for the sexy priest. But here is the girl lolling drunk on the Northern Line; her mother’s double mastectomy; the boyfriend who complacently pats his paunch; the masturbating to the porn channel; the death of her best friend, tangled in bicycles; the guinea pig-themed cafe. Some moments – several involving the guinea pig called Hilary – will be fresh and painful even to devotees. And a crucial piece of information, casually dropped late on, rearranges the whole evening from humorous lament (Waller-Bridge’s voice has a dying fall) into laceration.
She is as natural here as on the small screen – yet both magnified and more internal. Elliot Griggs’s lighting makes her face gloriously apparent. Weaponised eyes flick at her sister. Eyebrows swivel up her forehead as if they are about to take off. When she meets Rodent – the fellow with the vanishing mouth – you see her own lips suckering down like an anus. And yes the arsehole joke – preceded by a long pause which rolls knowingly around the audience – is here. She is a gifted mime, corkscrewing her body in order to get a shot of her vagina for a requested sext, or to show how her mother claimed her big breasts got in the way of opening the fridge door. She is, among other things, an ad for innovation on stage.
I have seen two plays by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins: both forceful, both funny, both examining slavery and racism. Each is remarkable. But put them together and you have something else: the beginning (Jacob-Jenkins is 34) of a body of work in which a dramatist tackles a subject of fundamental importance from different angles, bending the shape of his plays, squinnying from completely different viewpoints. Actually, these dramas don’t so much argue with each other as punch each other in the face. The truth is in the bruises.
After the electrifiying experimentalism of An Octoroon, first seen in Britain at the Orange Tree, Richmond, two years ago – in which actors were whited and redded up and chronology was chopped – Jacobs-Jenkins turns to stalwart American dramatic territory. In Appropriate, the variously troubled members of a white family yell at each other in a big house. The play – as sturdy as the family setup is rickety – pivots on a secret: was a supposedly upright patriarch, now dead, actually a vicious racist? The trigger of the plot – the discovery of a terrifying photo album – is deftly set up: the book causes a different disturbance each time it’s passed from hand to hand. Meanwhile, lights go on and off without the touch of a human hand; there are – possibly – strange noises from what is – possibly – a slaves’ graveyard. And Donato Wharton’s soundscape stars a chorus of screaming cicadas.
Other mysteries and secrets are less gothic but far-reaching. A financially savvy brother is under financial threat; another is in thrall to confession, as he has been to drugs and paedophilia. And the sister who has looked after dodgy dad is convulsed with the necessity of not allowing him to be impugned. Monica Dolan gives the performance of the evening: bunched up with the fear and anger that propel her around the stage, she watches herself become hateful and hated.
Fly Davis’s striking design suggests the unusual, wave-like movement of the play: from chaos through tightened-up chic to dramatic disintegration. Ola Ince, a new directorial light who directed a marvellously expansive production of The Convert, points up casually original moments: when, murmuring deeply, a woman teases her fellow’s hair into a man-bun; when a child appears, looking for a moment comical, then frightening, to reveal the truth of his grandaddy’s history. The switch between humour and alarm is key for Jacobs-Jenkins. His – yet-to-come – great play will thoroughly fuse the two.
Douglas Rintoul’s production of As You Like It is the second Public Acts staging, in which professional actors are brought together with a huge cast drawn from eight different UK organisations, among them a hip-hop dance company and a gospel choir. After last year’s Pericles, it has some of the best chorus work – variegated but united – I’ve seen in the theatre since I went to Chickenshed a year ago. When the chorus members fill the stage with their praise of Arden they do a rare thing: make celebration seem not just like a declamatory audition but an urgent statement.
Hayley Grindle’s design ripples the stage with multicoloured, glittering ribbons – Arden is as it should be, both alluring and changeable. Shaina Taub’s music and lyrics shimmer from rap to pop. I wish more of Shakespeare’s lines had been included and that the central figure of Jaques – beautifully played by Beth Hinton-Lever – was not obliged to deliver the “all the world’s a stage” speech, however ingeniously, as a statement about inclusivity. Still it’s a production that reaches out and takes you in. Hard to say that is not as you like it.
Star ratings (out of five)
As You Like It ★★★★