Book and Lyrics: Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx
Music: James Ringer-Beck
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Female superheroes are few and far between but in the last two years they have been gaining ground with franchise-boosting appearances for Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman – even the somewhat lacklustre new X-Men movie has a female-centric plot. At the same time sci-fi stage shows are making their way into the mainstream and the Edinburgh transfer of Vulvarineto the King’s Head Theatre hopes to replicate the success of cult favourite Eugenius and The Twilight Zone.
Tax office worker Bryony Buckle lives with her cat in High Wycombe, where nothing ever happens, and holds a candle for co-worker Orson. A trip to the doctor for a hormone injection quickly followed by a lightning strike transforms Bryony into superhero Vulvarine, “saviour of womankind” who sets about righting everyday sexism in this quiet Buckinghamshire town. But with the evil scientist Mansplainer developing a drug to make women obedient, Vulvarine must prevail.
Fat Rascal’s new musical is a zany tale of female empowerment that makes a virtue of its limited production values and right-on superhero messaging. It may not take itself too seriously but Vulvarine has plenty of solid advice and take-home headlines promoting female resourcefulness and self-belief with several songs reprising the line “I needed a hero so that’s what I became”. And ultimately the superpowers only take our heroine so far, the true resolution comes from ingenuity and teamwork.
Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx’s book is pretty bonkers, adopting a heroic cartoon template but subverting the damsel-in-distress narrative to make Jamie Mawson’s Orson the Lois Lane-esque love interest who needs to be rescued. The plot of this 75-minute show is a little over-elaborate and it takes a while to get past the initial expositionary passages establishing Bryony’s character, workplace and acquisition of powers, even then the audience must keep track of further strands involving the syphoning of the tampon tax for nefarious purposes, a talking cat, a secondary love interest and a shark called Boris. But there is a madcap sense of fun that pervades the show, papering over the cracks and dead ends with plenty of tongue-in-cheek enthusiasm.
It is really the songs that save the day with Grant and Foxx’s lyrics and James Ringer-Beck’s music that really bring the story to life. With 20 listed songs there is a lot of variety, drawing on influences from panto, 60s ballads and rap to create a diverse soundtrack. Best among them is a sweet love song for Orson and Bryony entitled The Office Boy and Vulvarine in which they amusingly reveal their love while trapped in laser cages, while Boys will be Boys sung by the villain’s wife has a sophisticated melody that utilises a gender-swapped Steffan Rizzi’s Welsh lilt.
In a show like this, there is no such thing as a restrained performance and the cast clearly enjoy every minute of their time on stage. Allie Munro’s Bryony transforms convincingly from geeky accountant to sassy superhero with a charming singing voice and has a sweet chemistry with Mawson’s Orson. But in a multitude of roles including the sarcastic cat and central villain, Robyn Grant really lets loose with an anarchic set of performances that are big, bold and full of energy.
The cardboard set works pretty hard with movable panels and extensions that swiftly change the location and in a fast-moving show of this kind some of the words occasionally gets lost in the melee but choreographers Jed Berry and Munro help to bring it together with some enjoyable comic dance routines. Vulvarine doesn’t quite have the tighter plotting and feel-good air-punching enthusiasm of Eugenius, but with a small budget this company is creating theatre on its own terms and that’s a pretty good message to take home.
Runs until 6 July 2019 | Image: Lidia Crisafulli