Writer: Melissa Bubnic
Director: Amy Hodge
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
“Life is a cabaret, old chum…” sang Sally Bowles in 1930s Berlin but, 80 years or so on, both life and cabaret look very different for the women in Melissa Bubnic’s satire of neo-feminism. The Bush Theatre, housed temporarily in Bush Hall and looking somewhat grander than usual, is configured to become a nightclub, with tables surrounding the stage and twinkling lights overhead,
A co-production by Headlong and the Bush Theatre, the show is performed by an all-female cast and it follows the fortunes of high-flying City Broker Astrid (Kirsty Bushell) and her newly-recruited protégé, 23-year-old Priya (Ellora Torchia), of Bangladeshi descent. Astrid is hardened and confident, Priya is naive, but ambitious, certain of just one thing – that she aims to win.
The girls join the Hooray Henrys guzzling bubbly and snorting coke in the City’s Champagne bars, equally prepared as their male counterparts to entertain clients in lap dancing clubs. But Astrid teaches Priya that mere equality is a target of the past in an age when it is all about winning and that the girls have assets that can put them ahead of the boys.
Bubnic does not make the competition for the girls too impressive. Their boss, Arthur (Helen Schlesinger) resembles a worm wriggling ineptly through the minefield of political correctness. Their fellow dealer, Harrison (Emily Barber), with an influential daddy, seems a pathetic creature, bullied by workmates until his chilling retaliation exposes the continuing vulnerability of women in the workplace.
For all her success, Astrid’s life is empty until she makes a tentative emotional connection with Isabelle (Chipo Chung), a £400-per-hour hooker whom she picks up in a bar. By bringing together a practitioner of the oldest profession for women with that of one of the newest, Bubnic emphasises the closeness of the two, later reiterating emphatically that Astrid and Priya are, in effect, themselves whores.
The first part of the show is fragmented and muddled, Amy Hodge’s production often feeling uneven. However, Bubnic’s barbed dialogue always commands attention and the show eventually pulls itself together for superb climactic scenes in which worrying modern dilemmas are brought into sharp focus.
In the cabaret, musical numbers include reminders of times when Doris Day and the Beverley Sisters were role models for women. Some of these numbers lack the oomph needed to set a spark to the show, but not so Bushell’s sizzling rendition of Nina Simone’s Do I Move You?, which sees her writhing across a grand piano (on which Jennifer Whyte provides accompaniment throughout), demonstrating exactly what it means to be a modern woman.
Bubnic offers little prospect of cross-gender harmony in a snapshot of shifting roles that is cold, cynical, yet still entertaining. She shows us that girls really can be boys but, once the game has become solely about winning, she questions the worth of the prize.
Runs until 30 July 2016| Image: Helen Murray