What happens when you see a play, written by a brilliant young imaginative woman who deserved to be nurtured, but the play sucked? And I mean I thought it stank, in every possible way?

The script had passed through feminist workshops around the world and, well, what can I say? Clearly the advice she had had was not great. Somewhere along the line, rather than being gently guided into a damn good structural and voice edit, she’d picked up the aesthetic of a bad 1980s Women’s Studies 101 street theatre group. Theatre’s precious and sort of endangered, so the last thing I wanted to do was give it a bollocking. Too many good people would have been hurt, right? I mean, what right do I have to can someone’s precious jewel?

So, here’s the first draft. Later, I changed it to offer what objective advice I could. Names have been changed to protect the delicate.

It was interval. We knew that, because the narrator barked out “Interval!” over her shoulder and she walked off the stage. This was probably just as well, because without the prompt people would have gratefully mistaken it for the end and made their escape. Presumably on the first night the audience had halved, and the poor sods presenting the play were kidding themselves that it was because they didn’t realise there was more. My companion, with a face of fixed and determined neutrality (the author and director were in the crowd), gestured towards the door. As soon as we were out, we both doubled up in silent laughter.

“Is it just me, or was that the most pompous piece of rubbish you’ve seen since Uni?” she asked. It wasn’t just her.

While XXX has combined elements of Greek tragedy, medieval morality tale and folk stories in the tradition of magical realism, (all good stuff, right?) I have to be honest that as a play it’s just not quite gelling yet. I’m not sure whether that’s because the script needs tightening, or production is sloppy. Probably both.

The play is largely narrated, which is hard to handle at the best of times.  But when every single line is delivered in laboured declamatory tones, it drains any possible vitality like blood from a hung carcass. The effect is almost like a really bad poetry reading interrupted by occasional bursts of misdirected activity. My companion and I found it hard to suspend disbelief and get into the fantasy world. It’s not a good sign when the audience is relieved at the main character’s tragic death. It’s a worse sign to hear audible groans when, having dragged themselves reluctantly back in after the break, the audience is told: “That’s right, Mirabella* survived the attack. “

More than anything, however, the production lacks the clever theatre and creativity which would bring it to life. Director XXX could have coaxed more empathic performances from these actors, all of whom are competent. On stage movement was shambling and unco-ordinated. At one point, the protagonist has to painfully totter slowly across the stage while several paragraphs of narration are recited. Honestly, it took about five minutes for her to get from one end to the other – riveting theatre, I tell you. Riveting. 

XXX as the evil King did an extraordinary job varying his evil cackles which preceded his evil commands, given that was all he had to do, over and over. “Ah hah hah hah hah. Kill him. Ah hah hah hah hah. Break her back.” The same poor guy does get to play other roles, namely a procession of identical soldiers, each of whom have to stumble in, slump on a table and either be healed or die. Similarly, all the other characters are flattened of nuance – and it’s not the actors’ fault. The costumes don’t help—not so much minimalism as leftovers from a Year 9 history class re-enactment of Julius Caesar. Likewise, killing people by stabbing the air half a metre away from them, sometimes with the blunt end of a bone, had us shuddering with suppressed giggles, detracting from the horror just a tad.

All of which is a real shame as this could have been great. As it stands, this production feels more like a short story to be read rather than a play to be acted. It needs some creative brilliance to give it the spark it needs to do justice to the material. Perhaps the team needs to chase down radio adaptations of Angela Carter’s Come Unto These Yellow Sands on artist Richard Dadd, or watch the movie The Company of Wolves to how this genre works when handled well.

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