Thursday 25 April 2024

What (is) a Woman - Review

Arcola Theatre, London


Written by Andrée Bernard
Directed by Michael Strassen 

Andrée Bernard

For two hours Andrée Bernard holds the audience rapt in her one-woman wonder What (is) a Woman, a play with music penned by the actor herself.

Telling the story of an (un-named) woman, Bernard skilfully blurs any boundaries between autobiographical fact and fiction as her tale follows the arc of an actress from a teenage drama-school naïf through to the worldly wisdom of middle-age.

Bernard charts us through her character’s crushes and loves - from the sad abortions of her early sexual experiences through to the tragic desolation of failed IVF attempts in her later years, in a narrative of remarkably bitter-sweet charm.

This male reviewer cannot comment upon the authenticity of Bernard’s prose, but as she exhaustingly commands both the Arcola Studio’s compact stage and our attention with her story, and irrespective of our own sex, one cannot fail to be moved by the overwhelming humanity of the evening.

Bernard brilliantly captures the key people who’ve impacted her character’s life - from an elderly bandy-legged drama coach through her various lovers and a frequently appearing hilarious pastiche of her gay, cigar-chomping agent, Cholmondeley.

The script ranges from witty, to biting, to painfully poignant - and in an elegantly flowing dress and sensible heels, Bernard’s performance, directed by Michael Strassen and choreographed by Lucie Pankhurst, is a whirl of perfectly positioned movement.

The acting is flawless - how Bernard ages her character with no additional makeup or costuming is little short of remarkable - and the writing and compositions, en-pointe throughout. There may be moments when Bernard’s singing is less than perfect, but the strength of her lyrics carry the songs nonetheless.

Daniel Looseley and Jess Martin on keyboards and bass respectively provide the musical accompaniment to an evening of outstanding new writing, brilliantly performed.

Runs until 4th May
Photo credit: Kate Scott

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