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Justin Murray

Review: COLLECTIVE RAGE: A PLAY IN FIVE BETTIES at Southwark Playhouse

Collective-Rage.JPGJen Silverman’s play Collective Rage: A Play In Five Betties is basically Athol Fugard’s The Island meets Orange Is The New Black. Or, it’s what happens to the girls in Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour when they grow up and switch ELO for Lady Gaga.

Our cast are five women called Betty scattered across New York. Betty #1 is the rich, bored housewife; Betty #2 her younger, slightly more neurotic counterpart. These two are straight out of this episode of Black Mirror. The energy and drive of the piece arrives with Betty #3, the fast-talking makeup artist-turned-visionary, and Betty #5, the non-binary boxing coach who guides Betty #1 out of her shell. Betty #4, meanwhile, just wants things to stay the way they are. Betty #3, after an exposure to the ‘theat-ah’, decides to stage a new devised interpretation of the play-within-a-play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and all the other Bettys get roped in, discovering the difficulties of theatre-making while also realising how much of their discussions seem to lead back to ‘pussy’. The Bettys inherit their Shakespearean counterparts’ cluelessness about theatre in the form of a wider existential cluelessness about where their lives are going. Will they transcend their previous Betty-based existence or will their collective rage just lead to more futility?

The acting is uniformly superb. Sara Stewart on the Betty #1 spot has impeccable comic rhythm in her solo monologues; Lucy McCormick perfectly balances her Betty #2’s needling anxiety with her eagerness to please; Beatriz Romilly doesn’t put a foot wrong as Betty #3; Johnnie Fiori’s Betty #4 is grounded and honest; Genesis Lynea’s Betty #5 kinetic and swift-footed. I truly cannot pick a standout. They’ve all clearly worked closely with drag queen and performance maker Charlie Parham, here on directing duties, on camping up the gendered mask they wear, which they by turns disavow or immerse themselves in.

So much of it is frighteningly effective. Parham’s direction pushes the cabaret elements of the script and makes smart, comedic choices. Anna Reid’s industrial, concrete design - part boxing club, part dressing room - is spot on; while the lighting and sound design (from Zoe Spurr and Hollie Buhagiar respectively) are razor-sharp. If there is an Olivier for Sexiest, Most Fluid Transitions, choreographer Nicola Treherne should definitely get it. It is also very, very funny. I haven’t seen anything that made me laugh this much in 2018, and would count myself lucky if I saw anything as funny again this year.

But the moment that dips below all that style into something darker and more substantial shimmers just out of reach. It nearly goes there, when Betty #2’s exchanges with her therapeutic hand puppet go slightly out of hand. But not quite - the final images are drawn from a far more absurd place, with a final addition to the dramaturgical landscape that comes out of nowhere. Silverman’s play pulls the wool over our eyes by not declaring its surrealism at the outset, and it’s hard not to feel a little cheated by this. 

So taking all in sum, we’re left with the rather schizophrenic conclusion that I have absolutely no idea if you should go and see this show. Certainly it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. Does that make it groundbreaking? I’m not convinced by Parham’s assertion in the programme that this isn’t a play about theatre. At the very least, it’s a play that uses theatre as a central metaphor, collapses it, and then emerges out the other side without much left to say. On the worst interpretation, it’s a mannered, self-indulgent form of masturbation with no appeal beyond the echo chamber of the ‘theatre people’ who gave it its standing ovation.

Part of me (Justin #1, if you will) is a bit worried about recommending you go see it in case it reinforces the stereotype of theatre as an endlessly self-referential echo chamber. Justin #2, on the other hand, absolutely loved it and thinks Justin #1 should shut up and just give it five stars. Possibly neither of them, or any other straight white cisgendered man, or ’theatre type’, should really get to dictate your theatregoing choices anyway. And maybe that’s the point.