[Review:] BLOOD, SWEAT AND VAGINAS, The Bread and Roses Theatre, London.

This witty one-woman show focuses on the life of Carolann, a menopausal introvert struggling to find her “inner bitch” whilst attempting, somewhat victoriously, sexual relations along the way.

When I first entered the house, I was greeted by a stage which was bare apart from a jacket slumped over a chair and a microphone resting upon a stool. Over the low music playing for the audience, a mixture of soft folk and soul, I could hear an off-putting array of whispering from within the wings. I had a slight fear that this would be a rather rudimentary and low-energy monologue. Paula David (playing Carolann, having written this play) then entered, and my fears of dissatisfaction were met. She spoke in an unrealistic fashion, incongruously to natural patterns of speech, and her monologue seemed to jump nonlinearly from idea to idea, though I believe this latter was due to the writing.

David started by introducing herself in the flashback setting of her BTEC Music solo performance in college. She remarked the various spectators she could remember, before singing into the microphone. She then performed a ‘dialogue’ between Carolann and her daughter. The shifts between these two characters was annoyingly subtle, though. As for all the characters she portrayed, David rather simply faced one way for Carolann and another for the character with whom Carolann was conversing. However, David would often mix up the turns, and the characters would suddenly be looking the wrong way. This was, in fact, a problem repeated sporadically throughout the play’s entirety.

For most of the performance, David faced Stage Left. I was sat to the very left of the audience and so could only see the back of her head for a good amount of the performance. Additionally, not only was she facing Stage Left but she was facing the wings of Stage Left, which meant that wherever anyone was sat, a slightly obscured profile view would be visible, not helped by the volume of her untied hair. The voices used were effective for the female characters she portrayed, but the males started to sound identical; on top of that, whereas the females each had a specific tick which quickly denoted their character for the audience, such as Carolann’s daughter’s twiddling of her hair, the male characters seemed to have nothing at all but that samey voice. Unfortunately, I must also draw attention to David’s many line slip-ups. This took away from the humour quite drastically in places, replacing a quick, sharp and witty tongue with one which was tied and laden.

So, this was my opinion for about the first third of the performance. However, I later came to believe that David simply needed some time to warm up. Her characterisations were rather thwarted by her somewhat low energy towards the beginning, but somehow, this energy began to gradually increase. This may have had something to do with the content of the play, which was busying with every line and becoming increasingly crass and crude in its sexual humour (in the most positive and relatable of ways); it may have permitted her to loosen up a bit, I feel. Whatever the reason, David became more and more endearing, lively and watchable.

At first, I found Carolann’s songs a tad wearisome. They seemed to have no relevance to me, but as the character of Carolann developed, along with David’s portrayal of her, these songs seemed to represent public awkwardness or assumed inferiority, as if she was continuously launched back into the insecure mentality of performing her BTEC Music solo to her doubtful and discouraging classmates. The songs’ subject matters changed accordingly with the narrative, making them more and more meaningful. They added a sense of personality and quirkiness to Carolann’s character whilst alluding to a theme of social pressure. But whilst the majority of songs came directly from this flashback setting, it was when the songs surfaced organically from the narrative that they were most effective. For instance, her singing straight after having had sexual intercourse with “Mr Looksogood”. Carolann becomes adorable and loveable in her social awkwardness.

To launch us back into BTEC Music, a dim and diluted white wash would cover the stage, and David would reach for the microphone. This was simple and effective, regularly drawing the performance back to this dark area of Carolann’s memory. Unfortunately, though, lighting was otherwise rather inefficacious throughout. Whilst music effectively brought us back to the solo setting, or amplified moments wherein Carolann felt ‘bitchy’ or saucy, lighting seemed to be used haphazardly. Rather primitively, a different lighting state was used for every scene, the only state having any pertinence to the play being that of the Bad Bitches club scene wherein the lighting becomes psychedelic, mimicking disco lights. Other than this, lighting seemed to be used rather unreflectively and unproductively. Moreover, the operation of the lights was also pretty poor in places; lights would often dim or come on before the current scene had ended and the following scene had begun.

Yet, amongst the comedy, the wavering characterisation and the multi-roling lies a deep network of unspoken yet natural feminine topics which bring unnecessary social shame to women, particularly those middle-aged. The play pivots around the menopausal woman and how her relationships, both romantic and platonic as well as professional and familial, are affected simply by her age and its effects on the body. We are presented with not only a feminist voice which attacks the views of misogyny in adulterous relationships through Carolann’s first boyfriend’s affair, but also one which aims to popularise and naturalise what is shared and natural amongst women in a humbling yet stern way: vaginal drying and lubrication, masturbation, sweating, sexual desire and sexuality, etc.

Not only does this play convey messages on the social view on the ageing female body but it also reflects social pressures within our postmodern popular culture, particularly amongst black females, to ‘release your inner bitch’. It has certainly become second nature to feel entitled and or to feel the need to ‘slay’, as it were, to be accepted, respected or estimable. Carolann’s timidity placed in this context demonstrates nicely the obscurity of this behaviour.

The biographical quality of Paula David’s writing, then, certainly aids the narrative in its likeability and relatability. I was, however, rather bemused when I learned that Paula David was the writer of this play as well as its performer. I just had the sense that somehow the expressivity and sense of the writing had been lost in the translation to performance. It was almost as if she did not understand her own writing, or, at least, that she could not emote successfully enough herself to represent her play in the optimal way.

“A humorous performance with deeper undertones, if a little downplayed here and there.”

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