Michael Wall's 1992 play Women Laughing is a dark, engaging and at times hilarious exploration of both mental illness and the futility of suburban life. Safely rooted in that most British world of ‘awkward turtle’ situational comedy, the talented Blueprint Theatre Company provide a detailed and thoughtful take on a play that is a peculiar mix of comfortable audial theatre and surprisingly uncomfortable physical performance.
Originally a one-act radio play, Women Laughing follows the journey of two suburban couples as they gently dance around the subject of psychological therapy. Wall’s strength as a writer is certainly his wordplay, with almost Joycean monologues interwoven with wonderful one-liners: “I hate it when I disuse a word”, “that AIDS advert on the telly”.
This is where the production flies, and Mark Rose is electrifying as Colin. Seamlessly moving from moustache-twitching irritant to open-hearted lost boy, he leads the audience through a manic first half in which Colin’s and Tony’s troubles are delicately explored through the broadest and most generic of topics: women, work, holidays, wine, and roads – among others equally banal and uniformly amusing.
It is this emphasis on the spoken word, however, that belies the show’s radio heritage and sets up an uncomfortable marriage with the evidently purpose-built theatrical second act. Tony’s complete mental breakdown and certification, alongside Colin’s unspecified sectioning move the action from comfortable bourgeois gathering to a full scale "lunatic" context.
This is certainly disarming, but feels more unbalanced than justified as suddenly the focus shifts to the physical performance of the actors rather than the strength of the whirlwind text. This serves more to highlight the deficiencies of the first act (with little attention paid by the author to the physicality of the characters) than to shock the audience with a genuine character progression. For Tony especially the leap is too far for us to believably make.
That said one excellent trick of Wall’s is to avoid naming Colin’s affliction. We naturally apply meaning to every paranoiac inflection in a vain (and of course entirely pointless) attempt to compartmentalise his mental illness.
Sally Rose’s performance as Stephanie is beautifully nuanced, particularly in the second act, and the ensemble performances are of an excellent and highly engaging nature. Furthermore the set and costume are wonderfully simple and evocative, calling to mind the spectre of the never-ending pastel bungalows in Edward Scissorhands. It is the jarring metre of the script, however, that preclude this production from really lifting off.