Not because I didn’t like the Bush Theatre’s latest piece, The B*easts, you understand. Nor because I don’t have a reaction to it. Quite the contrary. My problem is, it’s such an effective piece and it’s disturbed me so much that I sort of don’t want to think about it. Like, ever again.
You know that feeling you had after watching, maybe, 12 Years A Slave or United 93 or [insert your own example here]? That feeling of ‘fuck, that was amazing but I am emotionally unable to deal with it again’. That feeling of ‘I’m going to encourage all of my friends to watch that but I just can’t sit through it again’. Well, that’s how I feel about The B*easts. You should all definitely see it, it was stunningly effective, but I will 100% not be coming with you.
The B*easts is a one woman meditation on the sexualisation of girls, as told by the therapist of a woman whose pre-pubescent daughter convinced her to buy her breast implants. At age eight. It’s not, as far as I know, based on a true story but the thing that this production really drives home is not only that it could be but it’s surely only a matter of time until it is. I think the point at which this production pretty much broke me is the point where the sheer plausibility of its central - and initially seemingly quite outlandish - premise hit me like a fucking train.
Because actually in the society we currently live in, why should little girls reach any other conclusion than that their worth is reliant entirely on their appearance? That message is everywhere and it feels a bit overwhelming. How on earth does it stop? Have we, this production’s most depressing idea, reached the point where it’s just a ‘universal truth’? Why should an eight year old girl read her mum’s magazines and conclude anything other than that having her boobs done is the way to be happy, be noticed and get where she wants to be in the world? AND ISN’T THAT THE MOST AWFUL SENTENCE?
I’m aware I’m getting a bit ranty, but this piece has really struck a nerve with me. A lot of my friends are raising little girls (not that that should increase my capacity to care, but it does) and this production just made me feel sick for them. There’s a line at the end where the therapist says that she doesn’t know how to help people function in this world as things stand and that, well, yeah. I get that. And that feeling is fucking horrible.
Ok, let’s get back on some solid ground. Monica Dolan is both writer and performer here - which helpfully eliminates the need for me to write about those things in separate paragraphs - and she is just sublime with either hat on. As I think I have probably demonstrated ad nauseum, the writing is extraordinarily powerful. It’s also extremely well structured, the move from ‘well this story is preposterous’ to ‘shit it’s probably happening literally now’ is perfectly paced and the interlacing of the therapist’s own story (struggling with breast cancer and a potential mastectomy, because having boobs is complicated) is subtly and touchingly done. The acting is phenomenal: straightforward, conversational, detailed but entirely without window dressing. Dolan is a great, warm story teller too, which the production really uses well to break through the bleakness. I could listen to her all night (just not telling this particular story).
Production values-wise, there’s almost literally nothing going on and the show is all the better for it. The set comprises a chair and a lamp, an iPhone, some books and sundry other props. The sound is restricted to an occasional telephone ring (though plus one for whoever selected High Flying Adored from Evita as one of the pre-show songs - it so works with the story), the lighting design and direction barely perceptible. Exactly how things should be to make a production of a piece like this work, in other words. Kudos to director John Hoggarth for having the balls to allow it to play out so perfectly stripped back.
The B*easts is a phenomenal piece of theatre anchored by a script and performance from Monica Dolan that are as fearless and powerful as you’ll find anywhere in London. Anyone with even the most cursory interest in, y’know, the future of the humaan race should see it. Just don’t ask me to go with you.
The B*easts is at the Bush Theatre until March 3rd.