ELLA WILSON reviews part of Maiden Speech at Theatre N16.
Lexi Clare Productions’ Maiden Speech is a festival of nine new plays which aspire to ‘[explore] gender and sexuality through a myriad of stories and styles’. The two shows I went to see – Purple Snowflakes and Titty Wanks and Daisy, Like the Flower – set out to do just that, albeit with varying levels of success. Performed consecutively, both shows deal with themes of mental health and sexual assault, though with quite different messages. Purple Snowflakes, a one-woman production written and performed by Sarah Hanly and directed by Alice Fitzgerald, handles these issues with nuance and astute dramatic creativity. While Hanly’s piece is more than the sum of its themes, Daisy, Like the Flower, a play with a larger cast written by and starring Ashleigh Laurence, in attempting to cram too much plot and substance into its short runtime, sacrifices subtlety and ultimately the weight of its message.
Daisy bites off more than it can chew: it ends up feeling contrived, and there is a reliance on coincidence that undermines any meaning the play is admirably trying to impart. The shock it attempts to create through its climactic twist falls flat as not enough time has been spent establishing a character or plot. Themes are explored in ways largely unjustified by the play’s narrative, so much so that Daisy often comes across as insensitive. The first indication of this is that while Purple Snowflakes has trigger warnings at the door, as well as helplines suggested as you leave, Daisy provides neither of these things. If you intend to tackle complex and painful themes such as sexual violence, suicide and mental health, as with anything, you must do your research. If the team behind Daisy has done so, it does not translate.
In contrast to this, Purple Snowflakes’s depiction of bulimia, anorexia, mental health, sexual identity, abusive relationships and grief is anchored in precise detail, never tokenistic and never black and white. Purple Snowflakes does not come across as patronising, simplistic, or the kind of ‘tick-box’ feminism 101 which Daisy often becomes, whereby every stereotypical trope is used, and used poorly. Daisy, for example, depicts a raped woman as victim rather than survivor, and then further, falls into the trap of equating feminism with revenge in the form of like-for-like masculine violence.
In Purple Snowflakes, Hanly writes and inhabits a character who leaps from the stage and settles in the mind — intelligent, hilarious and unsettling. As the audience take their seats, Hanly has already begun: an unnerving, gently swaying presence who greets you as you enter, with silence and a red-eyed stare. Hanly hums with frenetic energy and burning charisma, sadness lurking behind her watering eyes. The piece offers an intimate portrait of grief for a best friend which is, from its opening scene, smothered in lewd, explicit humour and ballsy anecdotes; a story about mental health reminiscent of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. The character is a story-teller, using humour to entertain, distract and make herself and others feel better. The stories she tells to ‘Saoirse’, later revealed to be her dead friend, are animated, populated by vividly drawn characters that Sarah inhabits with aplomb, and most of all – incredibly – consistently funny.
Intervals of stillness, accompanied by a change of light and music, function as bookends for each anecdote, and Hanly’s command of tone and timing attunes us to the abrupt turns of the character’s thoughts. In these sepia moments we are invited into her broken internal world. The music is low and sonorous, and the noise envelops the audience in the same way as her grief which she describes as fog: ‘I can’t get rid of this fucking fog!’. Physical movement slowing and frenetic speech halting, she detaches from reality to cope with grief and illness. As the narrative draws closer to the time of the death, the lines between the still and silent and the mobile and loud become blurred. As the music becomes more manic, Hanly becomes more and more still; as the piece progresses, she becomes more and more covered in physical detritus from her own stories.
All this serves a purpose: we are being shown Sarah’s mental decline. She begins in denial and ends in acceptance, but in between Hanly lets us watch the weight of her memories weigh heavier and heavier. Purple Snowflakes is unflinching to the end, first and foremost an entertaining, well-told story about a complex character, which also tackles difficult subjects with honesty and without definitive answers. Daisy finishes ambiguously, with an ending that feels abrupt and unearned in the context of the narrative that depicts serious issues in a problematic way. On the other hand, the standing ovation Purple Snowflakes received speaks for itself: Hanly truly earns her final, triumphant: ‘I am a survivor.’
Maiden Speech is running until October 21st. Find more information here.
Featured image courtesy of https://www.theatren16.co.uk/ms1