Fluff Productions is an all-woman theatre company formed in 2004 by a group exasperated with the lack of interesting roles for women in theatre. According to their website, only 30% of roles are played by women (and in my own experience, these are often far less complex than the roles open to men). They teamed up with the No More Page 3 campaign recently to launch a competition inviting short plays focusing on the issues inherent in the campaign. The result was Fluff Shorts: No More Page 3, three short plays performed together over one weekend at the Park Theatre.
The No More Page 3 campaign was founded by Lucy Holmes in the summer of 2012, when she realised that despite Jessica Ennis having just won an Olympic gold medal, the largest single image of a woman in the national ‘family’ paper The Sun was that of a topless one. Although the campaign is focused on one issue, both the causes and implications of such objectification of women are widespread and the three plays dealt with a number of these.
Despite rehearsal of only 16 hours each, the plays burst with energy. The casting was fantastic with all of the actors seeming to take pleasure in the experience and the small set was used and designed to maximum effect.
The Tea Party
This put me in mind of Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls, in which a modern woman winds up at a dinner party alongside several historical and legendary women to debate themes of feminism. Though not an altogether original concept, this play really stood out for me. Alice, who is employed as a bunny girl, faints at work and finds herself at a tea party alongside Margaret Thatcher, Marilyn Monroe, Iris Murdoch and a Wise Celtic Woman from several centuries past. As the clock ticks, the five women rotate around the table as they debate topics such as beauty, women in the workplace, relationships and sexual objectification.
The playwright takes pains to show us that there is no obvious answer
The play moves quickly from topic to topic and some of the characters speak predictably. Marilyn Monroe in particular seems to throw out a number of fridge magnet-worthy phrases, but it seems likely that this is the language she learnt to speak to satisfy her fans’ expectations. What is more intriguing is that she also voices a number of profound and unexpected insights and these highlight the contrast between what was expected of her as a sex symbol and what she may have really thought as an individual woman.
Despite the fast-moving exchange – we never settle for too long on any one topic – the combination of characters that playwright Katie Wimpenny chooses to include somehow manages to convey multiple perspectives on every subject. Nothing feels like it receives light or simplistic treatment. I would have loved to see more, which is praise, not criticism of the piece. In the short time it had, it managed to get to grips with the complexity of a multitude of issues without appearing to lecture, so I’m sure Wimpenny could do amazing things with a little more time.
The mixture of characters from different historical periods and different cultural spheres also works nicely to suggest that women, whenever they have lived and whatever they have dedicated their lives to, have repeatedly faced the same form of opposition and been forced to make the same type of choices. What progress has or has not been made by feminism is very much in question throughout the play, with some unfavourable comparisons between today’s options for women and those that existed in Thatcher’s heyday.
I found this play incredibly engaging and would love to see a longer individual production of it. Its main link to the Page 3 issue was Alice’s role as bunny girl. As we spend more time with Alice, we see that she is bursting with opinions on feminist issues although she initially dismisses feminists as angry and man-hating. As she spends time with the other women, she comes to question her own choice of employment and its consequences. Is she really so different from a Page 3 girl, a practice she finds distasteful for its objectification of women? Will her workplace still provide her with employment during pregnancy? At the end of the play she is faced with an Alice in Wonderland style choice – to grow or to shrink – but the playwright takes pains to show us that there is no obvious answer.
Of the three plays, I was least impressed with this one. Burst was a collection of brief scenes. I believe the idea was to intersperse scenes dealing with weighty issues, such as female genital mutilation (FGM), rape, and marital abuse, with lighter scenes showing the societal culture and behaviour that end up feeding into those things and that are arguably easier to combat. After a harrowing description of growing up as a woman abroad, the programme asks: “If we can’t change something as juvenile, dated and ridiculous as Page 3, what can we ever hope to achieve?” Sadly, I don’t think the contrasting technique worked.
One hard-hitting scene of a woman describing her experience of FGM, stood out. The delivery is extremely powerful. However, the rest of the play didn’t measure up and felt weak in comparison. As soon as the scene is over, there is a party scene with play bunnies being asked to show off their skills and practice the bunny bow. Of course a patriarchal society’s attitude towards women is responsible for both phenomena but I couldn’t bring myself to care about these bunny girls after witnessing the previous scene and the change in mood felt extremely jarring and unwelcome.
All in all, the scenes of this play didn’t really hang together and were all too brief to be that explorative. I wasn’t always sure what was going on. Nothing managed to fully capture my attention after the scene about FGM. This is an interesting concept, but one that needs a rewrite and possibly a rethink.
Cock and Bull…The Rise of Excalibur
The final play was a comedy and made use of gender reversal techniques to make us question an everyday occurrence by portraying it from a different angle.
We meet Keith, a male Page 3 model, who shows off his penis for the nation’s women. We first see Keith as he is posed and photographed in a studio run by women. Keith is interested in penis enlargement and the women encourage him by telling him it’s what their audience like. As the play progresses, we see Keith become bigger, both in anatomy and in fame, until he starts to decline in stature after a surgery gone wrong.
The play included some particularly fine character observations and some witty one-liners
The cast play a multitude of characters, from makeup artists, news reporters and doctors, to grannies reporting on their feelings about Page 3. One particularly hilarious scene involves the Prime Minister justifying Page 3 – we learn that he’s mates with Murdoch and thinks objectification is a fine British tradition. The audience were in stitches.
The play had me laughing a lot. It included some particularly fine character observations and some witty one-liners and worked because of the character acting of its talented cast. Overall it wasn’t too original – it simply took what happens to women everyday and applied the situation to a man, with some exaggerated physical props to make the comparison more meaningful. Although not particularly insightful, I think everybody in the theatre enjoyed this play, and it could perhaps be put to particularly useful effect with audiences not well versed in feminism.
Overall then, this was a very enjoyable theatre experience. I think the work that Fluff Productions is doing is fantastic and I’ll definitely be looking out for their future productions. I really hope The Tea Party in particular gains the recognition it deserves. These are three very different plays, but all showing the harms that a seemingly light-hearted practice, defended as entirely harmless, bestows on both individual women and women as a group.