The series is at its best when at its most fanciful.
In the newly elected British Parliament, there are more MPs named John than there are female MPs. Such stark facts of ongoing political under-representation are what spurred this themed series of short plays: Female scribes were commissioned to address issues of women, power and politics in Great Britain, with plays grouped into two evenings’ viewing (“Then” and “Now”). The series is at its best when at its most fanciful — imagining behind-the-scenes encounters where female power is flexed and challenged — -and more than achieves its goal of showcasing distaff creative talent, in particular that of director-producer Indhu Rubasingham.
Like the Tricycle’s other recent themed series, “The Great Game,” about Afghanistan (that series is heading on a Stateside tour from September to December), and “Not Black and White,” about race in Britain, this offering feels – — to American sensibilities, at least — inherently ghettoizing. The plays are a distinctly mixed bag in terms of quality, and adding in snippets of verbatim text by current female MPs in between plays makes the evenings feel baggy and overlong.
But there are considerable delights along the way. Moira Buffini’s “Handbagged” stages a series of flinty tea-time exchanges between Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher, with each character played by two actresses (and a cameo appearance by actor Tom Mannion as Ronald Reagan). The issues over which the two women lock horns — – in particular, who between them really represented the nation to its people — – are credible and thought-provoking.
One of the standout contemporary plays, ironically, is the only one that features exclusively male characters: Zinnie Harris’ “The Panel” stages a five-man interview panel deliberating over an excellent female candidate and eventually deciding she is “a bit too perfect.” With its zinging dialogue and tight narrative structure, “The Panel” feels exactly the right length.
By contrast, Sam Holcroft’s “Pink” slightly overstays its welcome but still has a brilliant provocation at its core: an imagined power struggle between female porn magnate Kim (Heather Craney) and a female prime minister (Stella Gonet) whose husband has been sampling Kim’s wares.
Rubasingham (who helmed all the plays except one, “Playing the Game,” directed by Amy Hodge) elicits superb, emotionally detailed work from her protean 12-person ensemble (with Craney, Niamh Cusack, Gonet and star-in-the-making Lara Rossi particular standouts), and moves the evenings along with deft pacing. The level of talent and imagination here is uplifting, and galvanizing: Many of these writers deserve to be much better known.