About 500, which takes its title from the number of ovulations a woman is likely to have in her life, finally gets its live premiere this month, rescheduled after two Vault Festival cancellations. Writer and director Simona Hughes took time out of rehearsals to tell us more about the show and its journey. Time to get booking!
Clem is 37 when she starts trying for a child with her partner Luke. Two unsuccessful years later, she begins to realise that she, like many other women, has been outmanoeuvred by a timetable that ignores women’s finite fertility.
The average age of first conception for women in the UK is now over 30 and continues to rise, despite the cliff-edge drop in fertility at 35. As a result, more and more women in their 40s find themselves involuntarily childless. Recent figures suggested that, of this age group, only 10% of women are childless by choice.
Originally due to premiere at both VAULT festival 2020 and 2022, About 500‘s live premiere was twice cancelled due to Covid. It will now run at the Union Theatre in Waterloo from 8 to 11 February, followed by the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham from 22 to 26 February 2022.
What was the original inspiration for About 500?
In my early 40s, I began to reflect back on just how much of the big decisions in my life have been driven by this constant fear of missing my fertile window. On reflection, many of them were bad decisions (as any decision based on fear is likely to be). This led me to think about how, for women wanting a family, their finite fertility consciously and unconsciously dominates their lives in a way that men, on the whole, simply never have to consider. I became a bit fixated on this injustice and how (to quote the play) “feminism has given us a lot, but because of this massive difference in our fertility, we’re fucked…”
Having written the play, why did you want to direct it as well?
It’s hard to let go of your baby. This project grew out of interviews with 20 or more women of every age and from my brilliant actors workshopping scenes. I felt so close to the material I just couldn’t entrust it to someone else. Maybe a different director would have brought something new that I didn’t find, but I was prepared to forfeit that.
What were your feelings when your Vault run was cancelled in 2020? And then again this year?
In 2020 when the first lockdown meant that week 8 of VAULT was cancelled, and with it our show, I was completely devastated. We were in dress rehearsal when we found out, we had reviewers due and our ticket sales were looking good. The feeling of loss for all of us was all-consuming. Two pandemic years later, we are all a lot more sanguine and philosophical.
How did the online premiere go? What did you learn from it?
Performing and releasing a Zoom version, at the time, felt like a bit of a poor substitute, but the response was so overwhelmingly positive that quickly I realised how right we were to do so. The endorsement from Scenesaver and the OnComm nomination gave us the affirmation we needed to keep this project ticking.
Did you make any changes to the play during lockdown?
Yes. I’m always making changes. That’s the great thing about theatre. It’s never “in the can”…..
How did the runs at the Union & Omnibus come about?
I approached loads of fringe theatres on the back of the VAULT 2022 cancellation. The supportive and positive response across the industry for cancelled VAULT shows was phenomenal. These two theatres offered us runs that were ideal for our schedule, and they are both brilliant award-winning theatres so we lucked out!
Tell us about your cast & what they bring to their roles.
Stephanie Fuller who plays the protagonist, Clem, trained at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama with me (we both graduated from our Masters in Advanced Theatre Practice in 2019). We share a similar approach to theatre practice from having trained together, which means that, in the rehearsal room, we can use shortcuts to communicate ideas to each other. Steph has an amazing instinct for the work. In Clem, she has built a brilliant and beautifully layered character that is just a joy to watch. It’s not surprising her performance was nominated for an award.
Dickon Farmer and Joanna Nevin I both met years ago through the Tower Theatre Company (where I am a co-artistic director). I cast them because they are both highly skilled, intelligent and generous actors. The nuanced characters of Luke and Ruth that they have lovingly created serve as meaningful counterpoints to Clem.
What do you want audiences to take away from About 500?
A greater awareness of the race against time that contemporary women (who want a family) face.