Well, it’s a bumpy ride, but well worth the effort. And instead of last year’s 12 plays, there are only nine, all written by women, and given on two bills, “Then” and “Now”.
In the first programme, we have an acid, cleverly detailed scene of feminist conflict between a suffragette and a Belfast weaver by Marie Jones; a brilliantly funny bust-up between Mrs Thatcher and the Queen (“I never said there was no such thing as society”; “Yes, you did, in Women’s Own”) by Moira Buffini; an imaginative portrait of the first Queen Elizabeth by Rebecca Lenkiewicz; and a hilarious Greenham Common saga, with a kick-back in a Blackheath climate change camp, by Lucy Kirkwood.
It’s as though the demands of compressed dramaturgy in Indhu Rubasingham’s project – co-produced with Tricycle boss Nicolas Kent and designed by Rosa Maggiora – have liberated these writers into genuinely experimental formats. It’s incredibly refreshing.
And they are backed up superbly by a very fine ensemble of actors, notably in this first programme, Niamh Cusack as the weaver and Queen Bess, and Simon Chandler as a devastatingly tactful Buckingham Palace PR. The second programme of five plays is just as lively and no less surprising.
Joy Wilkinson writes a touching lament for the nearly-great career of Margaret Beckett; Zinnie Harris compiles a comedy of all-male boardroom manners as a female candidacy is brutally, and boorishly, dissected; Bola Agbaje creates a political microcosm in a student election driven by image and sexuality issues; Sam Holcroft pushes on into deeper waters with an imperious post-Thatcher lady PM trying to jump on the porn market wagon; and Sue Townsend returning to the theatre on glorious form with a gruesome canvassing comedy in Leicester (“You need to go to school, Courtney; you thought Russell Brand was a kettle”).
All the plays are vivaciously directed by Rubasingham, apart from the Agbaje, which is vivaciously directed by Amy Hodge. There are punctuating “verbatim” snippets about the difficulties of being a woman MP recorded by Gillian Slovo with everyone from Shirley Williams and Edwina Currie to Clare Short and Nick Clegg; all to the point, and very funny. Great ensemble work from Stella Gonet, Claire Cox, Tom Mannion, Kika Markham and too many others to mention.