Writer: KT Parker
Director: Kate O’Leary
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
In one of many windowless rooms in an alternative afterlife, four beheaded queens are thrown together. Their one thing in common? Their gruesome and untimely demise. Anne Boleyn (Christine Corser) sits and sews..and..sews..and sews, while Mary Stewart (Ashleigh Barton) fritters away their ‘tokens’ trying to relive memories of the past. They’ve not spoken for one hundred years following a bit of a tiff, but things are about to change. When Catherine Howard (Maisie Young) pops in for a chat (and a bit of time away from the Chamber of Adulterers) it livens things up a bit, but it’s going to take all they have to cheer poor old Marie-Antoinette (Jessica Huckerby) up when she arrives.
The Chamber of Beheaded Queens is Top Girls meets Horrible Histories, a feminist backwards glance at some of history’s most brutal moments. It’s a reminder that the women didn’t come off too well most of the time. They struggle, in fact, to remember any happy moments, although Catherine and Mary can both recall a few stolen moments of passion and Marie-Antoinette has some very fond memories of playing shepherdess. In fact, despite finding themselves in this never-ending purgatory, getting together and talking it all out seems to do them all the world of good.
It’s an entertaining idea, but it just doesn’t deliver. It could be a brave piece of feminist satire, it could be a powerful drama, it could be a sharp black comedy, but it falls somewhere between them all and ends up a rather worthy, dull hour of theatre.
The performances seems to reflect this ambiguity. Ashleigh Barton opens the show with a suggestion of Restoration comedy, but it’s short lived and her performance becomes flat and uninteresting as the play moves on. Maisie Young brings a little light relief in her first scene, flirting with the Herald (Isobelle Binns) but again fails to sustain it. The only performance that really works is Jessica Huckerby’s fraught Marie-Antoinette who is convincing as a woman torn untimely from the world, mourning her children and feeling well and truly cheated. Huckerby reveals a woman quite different from the spoilt brat that popular culture has generally portrayed her, and it’s a highly affecting and entertaining performance.
Chapter One Books, an independent bookshop and café in the Northern Quarter is a quirky choice of venue. The performance space is basic and not very sound-proof, but pleasant enough. As part of the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival The Chamber of Beheaded Queens attempts to offer something a bit different in the festival programme, but fails to live up to its promise.
Runs until 30 July 2016