Pleasance Theatre, London – until 29 April 2018
Ever since Willy Russell’s Stags & Hens and Nell Dunn’s Steaming 35-plus years ago, plays set in ladies’ toilets or ‘women only’ environments have been a regular occurrence on the British stage. Dames, which is written by Charlotte Merriam and directed by Jamie Garven, is also set in the ladies of a nightclub. There, six millennials who are as different as can be, talk about their respective lives. Just from the way the play is staged with April Dalton’s set design, the play has a heightened reality – suggestive of a nightclub without any of its naturalism. Certainly, in terms of some of the cast’s faux-metallic apparel for the show, they look like something out of Starlight Express.
While Cardiff (Melanie Stevens) gauges the audience’s attention when they first go to sit down, it’s Bianca (Olivia Elsden) and Erin (Merriam) who set the tone for the rest of the evening. Bianca’s miffed that Erin’s ruined her chances of scoring with the bloke she had her eye on. Erin, in her defence thinks Bianca is obsessed with men and if she were the sort of person who makes disparaging remarks about other women’s availability, she believes Bianca would justly own such remarks.
In some ways, Bianca is the most ‘normal’ of the six girls onstage and her caustic remarks about the others are very funny. In contrast, Erin has a quirky persona and is the most likely to say/do something unusual. The throwing of feathers to show she’s ‘as sick as a parrot’ is quite ingenious.
Back to unusual, the real name of one of the cast is Bianca (‘Ginny’ – Bianca Stephens). That in itself isn’t strange, but shortly after her introduction, Stephens addresses the audience as ‘herself’ and adds a metacritial element to the proceedings. This itself is an acknowledgement that the audience shouldn’t accept everything they see and hear as gospel, but recognise everything’s there for a reason.
Emily (Ellie Heydon) is the only character who acknowledges her sapphic tendencies. But instead of truly being edgy or ‘alternative’, she ticks all the boxes in terms of stereotypical middle class traits – a resident of west London, a devout vegan, patron of boutique health food stores… Kate (Arabella Neale) her straight equivalent, is a mirror image to her – the only additional traits being Kate emphatically knows she’s emperically attractive, but sees it as something that will be detrimental in the long run.
Dames doesn’t have a plot as such. Nor does it lead to a conclusive ending. What it does do is hold a mirror to different facets of young women today, showing them to be anything but easy to define or to neatly put into boxes.