Finborough Theatre, London – until 19 May 2018
It isn’t that this revival of Sarah Daniels’ play Masterpieces doesn’t have relevance today but the story of a woman who hits out in response to rising sexualisation of women and access to pornography is being done so much better by other female writers, Daniels may have been the first but she isn’t the best.
This disjointed tale, directed by Melissa Dunne, is a product very much of its time. It is unashamedly 80s in its costume, attitudes and even down to retro porno mags. It looks great but suffers from Daniels’ inability to stay in one place, scene or even timeline for long enough. She wants to cover it all but is unable to do it with any empathy. Porn is bad, women are great is a great view to have but Daniels doesn’t acknowledge the complexities enough, at best she acknowledges why women end up in the sex industry and it is then she is at her least critical.
Rowena (played brilliantly by Olivia Darnley, descends into madness, beginning with her friend Yvonne’s (Tessie Orange-Turner) comment about how challenging teaching is when boys share around pornographic magazines; this storyline goes off like a firework in all directions; from the poverty of Thatcher’s Britain through the eyes of Rowena’s social work, to school age rape convictions, contraception for teenagers, to affairs and the attitudes to porn that the characters have. Once Rowena sees her first pornographic magazines, from a haul Yvonne has collected from schoolboys, there is no going back for Rowena.
This piece should be more timely, porn is more accessible than ever but attitudes to the sexualisation of women have changed. In the age of #metoo and porn hub, it seems the children of 80s porn mags and videos have just moved their niches and interests to the internet. The issue is that Daniels is a good writer and she knows it, so she wants to say everything at once.
For example when Rowena gets one of her clients, Hilary (also played by Tessie Orange-Turner) away from prostitution to a job with her friend Ron (Rob Ostlere), who then sexually assaults her we get a fantastic scene where Rowena confronts him, Yvonne realises her marriage to Ron is over and Rowena’s husband Trevor (Edward Killingback) shows a misogynistic attitude towards women that ends their marriage. Inexplicably we then see the scene where Rowena finds out from Hilary what happened. Why? It adds nothing to the story. It cannot decide it if it wants to be a thriller, a La Plante-esque tale of crime and retribution or to chastise the miserable 1980s, where people don’t have jobs but they can rent a pornographic video easily.
The performances are great, I particularly enjoyed Sophie Doherty as multiple characters including Rowena’s mother, and her prison officer when Rowena is driven to anger and frustration when she realises how women are seen by society. Nicholas Cass-Beggs as her porn-loving stepfather is an interesting character, who pus demands on his older wife that she has given up trying to meet, lacking depth.
This plays inability to find a message/story and stick to it play’s downfall and not even an authentic and stylised production and strong performances can cover up a meaningful but messy look at women in society. With some editing, this could be improved immensely and it is a real shame that this 80 revival wasn’t seen with 21st-century eyes.