‘This is a writer fully grasping her moment’: ONE WOMAN SHOW – Ambassadors Theatre

In Comedy, London theatre, Opinion, Other Recent Articles, Plays, Reviews by Maryam PhilpottLeave a Comment

Ambassadors Theatre, London – until 21 January 2022

Oh the patriarchy, that pesky social control mechanism gets everywhere. It is so wily and ubiquitous that even when women think they are breaking the mould and pushing back against its restrictive tendrils, it turns out that is just been internalised patriarchy all the time.

Liz Kingsman’s hilarious 70-minute One Woman Show may never actually use the ‘p’ word but it is certainly at the root of her withering and sometimes surreal pastiche of modern female writing and the longer strands of female representation on stage and screen. Making its West End debut at the Ambassadors Theatre, as one of only three women writers in a major venue right now – one being Agatha Christie next door with The Mousetrap and the other April de Angelis at the Dorfman with Kerry Jackson that doesn’t entirely deserve its stage – Kingsman has an extraordinary, and all too rare, platform in which to make her case.

One Woman Show has been quite the success story and a key example of why investment in grass roots theatre development is so essential. Kingsman’s piece began at the Vault’s Festival in 2020 before moving to the Soho Theatre earlier this year, on to the Edinburgh Fringe where it picked up further awards and now into the West End before an international stint at Sydney Opera House in 2023.

It is a dream come true story in many ways that, like Six before it, has enjoyed a phenomenal trajectory picking up critical and audience acclaim en route. But it speaks to the effectiveness of the theatre ecosystem where playmakers can gain valuable experience of adapting their piece to suit the changing scale of their venues and receive constructive feedback on their writing as they advance through the stages of festival, fringe, off-West End and eventually the big houses where One Woman Show feels perfectly at home. It might not have felt so easy for Kingsman and her team in practice but in a sea of pantos and Christmas shows, the impact of the writer’s entertainingly political piece is all the greater.

One Woman Show is an inherently theatrical performance and what could have been a stand-up set is instead an opportunity to comment on the nature of performance itself using a multilayered structure that explores different narrative devices and representations of women’s lives in different media, but particularly television and film. That Kingsman chooses a theatre production as the vehicle for this assessment is especially interesting because theatre brings with it a much greater sense of complicit falsity in which the performer and the audience tacitly agree to suspend their disbelief until the illusion is broken and the actor steps forward to receive applause, at which point the performative nature of the story becomes apparent.

Not so in other media where no such breaking of the spell exists and the viewer is left to believe that the characters lives continue in their world until the next edition. Choosing theatre then as the means to expand on the misrepresentation of women in television and film and its role in creating an essential artifice that actively conceals a more complex truth is particularly fascinating and Kingsman utilises the notion of layers of reality and their interaction through the construction of this story which operates on several structural levels.

With tongue firmly in cheek, One Woman Show is essentially the story of one chaotic woman’s attempt to find love in the big city while navigating the challenges of life, work and friendship that will lead to an inevitable moment of self-realisation and self-acceptance if not a perfect romantic ending. A contemporary female protagonists is the star, a messy, complex and relatable figure with no idea what her life goals ought to be but somehow endearingly bumbling through one emotional crisis at a time. Kingsman’s point is that a modern heroine may be less than perfect, allowed to have casual sex and be selfish / unpleasant / narcissistic but this representation of women only serves to reinforce patriarchal judgments about female emotional instability and weakness that only a stable relationship with a man can fix.

The confessional style narrative used to reinforce the “cool girl” stereotype aligns female behaviour with laddish traits like drinking, being confrontational and enjoying banter, traits designed to appeal to men rather than necessarily reflecting the true diversity of female experience. Described as a direct parody of Fleabag by early reviewers, One Woman Show has a much broader range and is in fact looking at particular types of rom-com heroine from Bridget Jones to Trainwreck while reflecting on the desire to use these fictional creations to generate commercial success for their creator.

The way Kingsman does this is through a dual staging device, the first designed to disarm the audience and even to wrong-foot them from the start with a strand devoted to the career ambitions and monetisation of the creator’s vision. In the opening moments, Kingsman appears on stage seemingly as herself to talk directly to the audience ahead of the show beginning to explain a series of technical problems with the recording of the performance that are delaying the start. This becomes a recurring and important device throughout, stopping the show in its tracks to note that sound has been lost or the feed to the camera is compromised. Each time, it forces the audience out of the other story Kingsman is telling via her deliberately unnamed and oh so universal character, and acts as a way to break down the wall between the audience and their complete absorption in a story we are thereby reminded was never real.

A further purpose is to act as a comment on the nature of performance itself into which Kingman is slipping. Which of the two women presented in the play is the real Kingsman and does she necessarily have to be either? Within One Woman Show, Kingsman is playing a part that is playing a part, a technique that empashsies the multifaceted nature of the writer who presents two slightly different versions of the narrator, one keen to record her show for an absent producer in the hope that it brings her greater career opportunities and who has minimal regard for an audience that must endure her interruptions and occasionally petulant reactions, and one sweetly ditsy woman falling in and out of love at a ridiculous rate, overstating her emotional attachments but charmingly harmless in her way. That Kingsman is both of these creations at the same time and through the conceit of the show argues they are the same person only serves to underscore their ultimate falseness and fictional existence.

That both of these versions of a single woman are performed to camera (at least within the pretence of the show) only underscores the fantasy inherent in these creations and aligns them with the equally unlikely depictions of young women across different kinds of media. This continual commentary is woven so seamlessly and naturally into the show, used to disrupt the narrative arc while simultaneously maintaining a consistently entertaining performance, and gives One Woman Show its many layers and meaning.

The second storytelling device is a much more traditional romantic comedy framed as a confessional story that the protagonist is recalling, presented candidly to the audience. It takes place on a representative stage with an office chair and a reed-filled moat representing the nature charity where the character works in Marketing – a job that brings with it plenty of opportunities for humour. Kingsman here adds as many cliched tropes as she can giving the narrator a thinly drawn comedy best friend with a northern accent who only ever dolls out timely and sage life advice, an undemanding but worthy London-based office job, an older but experience manager and plenty of meet-cute opportunities all framed in a rose-tinted version of the capital that no one will recognise.

Toying with these concepts, Kingsman adds some sharply honed surreal humour that gently mocks the ridiculousness of these scenarios so the audience doesn’t get too comfortable. The writer then uses some of the secondary characters to challenge the stereotypes of women and the patriarchal expectations this genre continues to impose. Again, Kingsman never chooses to compromises interest in her character and her story with the audience continually lured into her world (for which the filming interruptions are a necessary rejoinder). However much we recognise the frustrations of this trope, Kingsman is all too aware how the slightly exaggerated nature and wide-eyed innocence of these characters can be all too engaging, designed as they are to be likeable and pleasing – the primary of purpose of women in the patriarchy.

Creating audience connection to and engagement with this character is deliberate of course so that it can be disrupted and Kingsman combines direct monologue with acted scenes in which she represents other characters through changes of body language and accent, and memory sequences that take the character back to previous experiences that are pivotal to her eventual realisations. The driver here is an emotional trauma about a man (naturally) which the audience will eventually learn and the character will be healed. Notable too is that Kingsman only ever plays the female characters and while male speech is reported, additional voiceovers are provided for the academic naturalist with whom she enjoys a whirlwind romance and the persistent crew member directing the technical recording – perhaps to be interpreted as even the voice of patriarchy itself telling her what to do.

One Woman Show is then more than a pot shot at Fleabag and the like, and is instead an assessment of the performative nature of female roles in popular culture products in which the inauthentic substance of these representations is both highlighted and satirised while fully acknowledging how appealing and entertaining these tropes continue to be. Kingsman’s show is designed ultimately to make the audience laugh, which it does repeatedly and often, and this is a rewarding way to spend 70-minutes however you engage with its layers of subtext. This is a writer fully grasping her moment on this huge West End platform to question the structures and expectations surrounding and consuming us, so don’t miss out on this brief opportunity to be part of it.

One Woman Show is at the Ambassadors Theatre until 21 January with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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Maryam Philpott on RssMaryam Philpott on Twitter
Maryam Philpott
Maryam Philpott has run the London-based Cultural Capital blog since 2013, predominantly reviewing theatre, but also exhibitions and special film screenings with a more in-depth and discursive approach. Since 2014, Maryam has also written regularly for The Reviews Hub, reviewing all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End, as well as contemporary dance, ballet and opera. She has a background in social and cultural history, and tweets as @culturalcap1.

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Maryam Philpott on RssMaryam Philpott on Twitter
Maryam Philpott
Maryam Philpott has run the London-based Cultural Capital blog since 2013, predominantly reviewing theatre, but also exhibitions and special film screenings with a more in-depth and discursive approach. Since 2014, Maryam has also written regularly for The Reviews Hub, reviewing all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End, as well as contemporary dance, ballet and opera. She has a background in social and cultural history, and tweets as @culturalcap1.

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