There’s a fair bit of audience participation in Womans - starting before the show as protagonist Annabella wanders around the auditorium, thanking people for coming and expressing her anxiety that things won’t go well. With a wide grin and obvious desire to please, she makes an immediately appealing character (though I question the use of a West Country accent to denote her not being the brightest bulb in the box). Annabella is quickly joined by the other two cast members, muses Polly and Mel; what follows is a brilliantly evoked and energetic tale of gender politics in ancient Rome, and the importance of seeking out forgotten female heroes of the past. There’s lots of running about, abundant puns, some musical numbers and a chariot race presented entirely through the medium of coloured sheets.
Annabella is meant to be doing a presentation for her AQA Module 4 resit - but she accidentally summons Polly and Mel from limbo, with the help of an audience volunteer. They proceed to re-enact the story of Vestal Virgin Leta, who is declared a traitor by the Senate and sentenced to ‘Damnatio Memoriae’, or total erasure from history. Womans fits into the popular pattern of giving historical tales a modern musical treatment, and it also chimes with a growing interest in the stories of forgotten women. And it does it with gusto; all three actors give spirited and enthusiastic performances, and are clearly enjoying themselves tremendously throughout.
The cast do a lot with very little. Props and set are minimal, but used in inventive ways to great effect. I particularly enjoyed Polly’s role as the Vestal Fire and the Roman guards’ helmets, made of large red brushes. Some aspects are a little rough around the edges, but that’s at least partially deliberate, since none of the three characters are presented as great dramatic actors for their play within a play.
The performances are a little shouty at times, and I do feel the middle section goes on a bit too long, but the gladiatorial climax is fantastic as it transports the audience directly into the Circus Maximus. I was impressed by the cast’s ability to improvise when engaging the audience directly, and particularly enjoyed the chance to participate in a rousing Spartacus moment. It relies a lot on the extended contribution of one audience member - I don’t think he was a plant - and although that’s quite a risk, I’m confident the cast can handle whatever they are presented with on any given night.
Overall, Womans puts across an important message, but does it in a highly amusing and clever way. The cast work hard in multiple roles, providing their own sound effects and great moments of physical comedy. It’s highly entertaining and there’s some genuine education in amongst all the riotous fun.