Friday 24 January 2014

Theatre review: Blurred Lines

Nick Payne and Carrie Cracknell's devised piece for The Shed was meant to be the final production at the National Theatre's temporary venue, but its shelf life has now been extended into the spring. It would have made an explosive finale though, a theatrical exploration of the themes from Kat Banyard's feminist book The Equality Illusion. On a vast staircase that fills The Shed's stage, eight women discuss, act out, and sometimes sing about the ways women continue to face inequality today, from the workplace to the law, and a culture of sexual violence that's officially condemned but often glamourised in practice. The insidious misogyny of the music business is a recurring theme so it's no surprise that, with pointed topicality, the piece has been titled Blurred Lines.

We open with the actresses listing the stereotypical descriptions of roles available to them, a sequence distilled when Michaela Coel takes to the stage to sum up what parts a black actress can look forward to - cleverly juxtaposing how uncomfortable it feels to pigeonhole race this bluntly with how casually it's done with regard to gender.

There are brutal scenes, like Sinéad Matthews having to repeatedly film being murdered for a TV crime drama, and scenes of frustration as Claire Skinner is gradually pushed out of a marketing job because having children has divided her focus from being solely about work. But for a show with a real anger behind it there's a lightness of touch - Blurred Lines blurs some lines of its own, between the actors and the parts they play, as when Susannah Wise and Lorna Brown play an arguing husband and wife and keep breaking off to bicker about how they're playing the scene.

And this may be part of why the play doesn't feel particularly like an attack on men, as it acknowledges the part some women play in keeping themselves and others down: It's a female boss (Bryony Hannah) who masterminds Skinner's firing, the mother (Ruth Sheen) of a rapist who's his staunchest apologist, and the pop songs old and new the women perform come from the point of view both of oppressive men and of submissive women (although I think there's still some disagreement over whether "He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)" was always intended as an exposé of domestic violence or a casual acceptance of it.) Pointedly, the National was refused permission to have them sing the Robin Thicke song the play takes its title from.

The play's epilogue is a sketch on a post-show discussion, Marion Bailey's hilariously well-observed body language stealing the show as a director who has no end of answers for why his scene condemning the objectification of women also manages to objectify a woman. Although, having seen a few of these Q&As over the years, I can confidently say that a certain amount of the bullshit her character spouts isn't a man thing but a director thing (and I say that as someone whose dream job that would have been.) Not every scene works but Blurred Lines has a good hit rate and, crucially, didn't feel to me like many political pieces do, as if it was just preaching to the converted. Not because I have any illusions that its audiences won't just consist of the converted, but mainly because it doesn't preach.

Blurred Lines by Nick Payne, Carrie Cracknell and Michaela Coel is booking until the 22nd of February at the National Theatre's Shed.

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes straight through.


  1. This is one of those times when a review makes me wish I lived in London and could get a ticket to see the play right away. :(

    1. It's a bit of a long trip for a 75-minute show!