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What (is) a Woman | Arcola Theatre

What (is) a Woman is a solo musical, where one actress plays all the men. Written and performed by Andrée Bernard (Poirot, ITV; Hollyoaks, Channel 4; Only Fools and Horses, BBC One), this is the story of a woman as she goes through life and love, in this 155 minute piece. The biggest wins for this show is the very clear physical and vocal embodiment of all the different characters. Andrée plays every character distinctively, and so we’re never lost on who is speaking. This is no easy feat of course, as one woman playing 6+ parts is a huge challenge.


The show also features impressive and engaging movement and choreography. Choreographer Lucie Pankhurst has managed to create beautiful movement that feels so powerful and yet complimentary to the music, bringing the words and the moments to life in stillness and in action. The music was woven seamlessly throughout the piece, feeling like a central piece that really supports, and in some cases, livens the story. It felt like a musical journey, not just in the songs that were sung, but in the accompaniment to every aspect of the show, even in some of the tougher and more somber scenes. Huge credit is due to the arrangement and musical directorship from Daniel Looseley and bass player Jess Martin.


Ultimately, the main issue with the piece is sadly the story. Slated as a show that heralds what it is to be a woman in an era of empowerment with raw, authentic and uninhibited writing - the show does not deliver. In what feels more like a self indulgent prose-laden piece about love and lust throughout one person's lifetime, we watch as the (nameless) main character goes from relationship to relationship, online date to online date. All in search of that perfect match.



She comes close several times, but sadly no cigar. She has a best friend who has already started the traditional life that this main character wants, only to rebuff her only chance at that life with Mr. Wright - a man whom she ‘loves but is not passionately in love with’. The truth is that for her, love is synonymous with passion, which is why she ends up leaving her safe and stable relationship for her ‘tall America ‘ - someone who has been the epitome of a booty call for 18 years now. And this is where the lack of nuance and character building shows itself. Because instead of rooting for a character we’ve now spent almost 2 hours following, we do not root for her as she breaks things off with Mr. Wright. We do not root for her as she has her deepest moment on stage, crying and desperate at the thought that her ‘tall American’ rejects her for the last time. Without solid characterisation for this main character, we are not invested in her life. We are only mere observers.


The lack of character names as well is something that is hard to grasp. This is because the show reduces every character down to their main physical or vocal characteristics. There are no names, just portrayals of these often stereotypical characters that she encounters. And this leads to feelings of generalisation - that there is nothing specific here, only more nameless caricatures of people we’ve already seen on TV and Film a thousand times before.


Lastly, the exploration of empowerment and gender dynamics that is suggested in the show description is lightly implied at best. There are moments where you wonder if she’s going to address possibly being groomed, as implied in her marriage to an up and coming director. But that doesn’t get addressed, only the sadness she feels when he up and leaves her one day. There are moments where you wonder if she’s going to address and really dig into the pain of miscarriages and the dying dream of being a mother - but that doesn’t get the time or moment that it deserves. It’s spoken about but only through the lens of her relationship with a man.


It’s not ever really about this woman and her perspective, and it’s certainly not about the aforementioned struggles that so many women experience. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the show is called ‘What (is) a Woman’. Because from the title alone you feel you’re in for a fascinating and honest exploration of womanhood. I was also excited to see an older actress on stage talking about love, as I was hoping to get an exploration of what love looks and feels like as you get older. But alas, this does not deliver. Not until the very last song does she focus on her womanhood, where she sings and asks us ‘what is a woman’. I don’t know, honestly. But I don’t feel that this musical has quite grasped it either.


What (is) a Woman runs at Arcola Theatre until 4th May. For more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.


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Gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by Kate Scott

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