Dames – Pleasance Theatre, London

Writer: Charlotte Merriam

Director: Jamie Garven

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Dames – there is nothing quite like one, but the word itself conjures an image of a particular type of woman; not placid or ladylike but complex, refusing to conform and possibly even dangerous. You imagine a femme fatale in a hard-boiled film noir, or a no-nonsense Jane Russell type refusing to be hoodwinked by some guy. Charlotte Merriam’s new play taps into these ideas to explore what a twenty-first-century dame might look like.

Seemingly trapped in a club toilet at the end of the night, six very different women are thrown together in an entirely female space where their personalities, class differences, drunken paranoia and frustrations with the world come tumbling out. As fights break out, attractions come and go, and everyone’s grasp on the real world becomes a little shaky, Dames celebrates the enduring importance of female friendships.

Merriam’s play creates a strangely surreal yet familiar world in which linear story-telling is largely subverted in favour of comic oddity. It’s the kind of play where nothing and everything occur simultaneously, that doesn’t progress the lives of the characters at all but somehow paints an intricate picture of the pressures, fears and joys of being 20-something.

It’s a production that can more easily be experienced than described, because nothing is quite real, and the structure is closer to a stream of consciousness or glittery dream than a formally constructed play. Yet, this is both its major strength and its weakness, allowing Merriam to dip in and out of a layered reality in which the audience sees the story repeated several times each with the characters altering the strength of their performance, while also stepping directly out of the play to reference the falsity of personas they adopt for our entertainment.

So, Dames is a show that makes an impression but uses chaos to achieve it, and while that doesn’t always bring the viewer along with them or allow you to entirely give yourself up to its shiny madness, its frank and almost throw-away references to everything from tampons to sexuality, the expectation to look right and constant self-doubt, does leave you with a clear idea that society still expects women to ‘perform’ a certain way and Merriam wants us all to see how ridiculous that is.

The existence of six distinct characters with a past and a future is only partially relevant, and while they don’t all get the same amount of time in the spotlight (as a conventionally structured play would offer), instead Merriam uses them to serve a particular purpose, bringing aspects of the story together or to represent a different female voice or concern but without labouring the point.

The core friendship between Olivia Elsden’s lairy Bianca and Merriam’s off-the-wall Erin is based on the contented sparring of two working-class girls who’ve known each other forever. Into the mix come Ellie Heydon’s totteringly inebriated Emily trying to find her way through her career and sexuality, while Arabella Neale’s upper-middle-class Kate has every physical advantage but still feels empty. Finally, Bianca Stephens as Ginny and Melanie Stevens as Cardiff earn their laughs in smaller, broad comedy roles.

On April Dalton’s purposefully trashy and garish set, everything seems heightened in the infinity loop that traps the characters in this one night which only becomes frustrating when the story restarts for the third time and it becomes less clear where it’s heading. Yet, Dames is a big ensemble piece that mostly balances the wacky stuff with moments of genuine connection to highlight the importance of female solidarity, support and weird shared experiences that can only happen at 2am in a toilet.

Runs until 29 April 2018 | Image: Scott Rylander

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Strangely surreal

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