The Old Woman Who Lived in a...

Mon 15th – Sat 27th August 2011


Dominic Sowa

at 10:58 on 17th Aug 2011



The end. The tale is finished, the book is closed and the parent leaves the room, softly closing the door behind them. However, the story doesn’t end where you expect it to in Elements World Theatre’s new physical theatre piece ‘The Old Woman Who Lived In A...’. In an intriguing reworking of a children’s fable, award-winning playwright Lee Gershuny picks up the story 20 years where the nursery rhyme finishes with the now grown up children demanding revenge and answers from the woman who beat them black and blue.

In homage to Becket’s ‘Waiting for Godot’, the adult children of the Old Woman who lived in a shoe come to the Café of No Tomorrow to confront their childhood aggressor yet end up stuck in a world of no past, no future, just eternal present. The café itself is a mythical cum spiritual place, guarded by the Waiter, Pete Baynes, who writes all the rules and acts as the narrator of the tale. Baynes himself is a captivating host, playing the roles of Shaman, trickster yet frequently letting the gravitas of the piece down by a flat performance. This may possibly be due to the play’s need for a neutral narrator in the midst of all the chaos.

The two children, Jack and Jill, played by musician/actors Robert Williamson and Corinne Harris return from the fictional world to confront their abusive mother in 6 varied scenes. The drama of the play follows the actions of the Waiter as he uses storytelling, trickery and music to disarm the often violent intentions of the children by providing them with the mental space to reassess their childhood and come to some peace with their mother.

The play is an interesting and inventive reconstruction of childhood classics reminiscent of Angela Carter’s dark take on fairy tales in her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber. However, it falls short of high expectations. The play feels muddled and hastily constructed, often bordering on confusing and unstructured. It feels like it attempts to say too much with an uncertain voice. The use of the nursery rhyme as a foil and a starting point for the exploration of themes of abandonment and childhood abuse is novel yet inconsistent.

Themes are created, but never developed. Metaphors are left hanging in mid air and messages shakily developed. The play tries so hard to be a forum for complex emotional and psychological issues, yet falls short of such high pretentions. This show will leave you unsatisfied.


Natalya Din-Kariuki

at 15:50 on 17th Aug 2011



The Elements World Theatre production "The Old Woman Who Lived In A..." imagines the lives of the children of nursery rhyme fame - beaten black and blue by the Old Woman - twenty years after. Soothed by the attentions of the Waiter in the Café of No Tomorrows (played by Pete Baynes), Jack and Jill (Robert Williamson and Corinne Harris) grapple with the past difficulties of their childhood and attain inner peace and forgiveness. The audience is gently led into the Café, with Baynes already in character, kindly welcoming us in and offering us broth.

Lee Gershuny's script is frequently witty and insightful - we are told that the woman "changed shoes constantly", from Doc Martins to stilettos to sneakers. However, it also lacks coherence, the three characters switching between an array of identities - including "Comeback Jack", "The Ogre of the Sticky Hair" and balaclava-wearing intruders - for no distinguishable reason. Of course, their adoption of these roles aids in emphasizing their journeys to self-actualisation, but it borders on the ridiculous.

The script also fails to fulfil its potential as a modern interpretation of a traditional story - the discussion about "what women want" was particularly problematic, in my opinion. The trio discuss the tale of a man asked to choose whether he would prefer his bewitched wife to be beautiful by day and ugly by night, or vice versa. The man then "gave" her what women want - her own will - and is subsequently rewarded by his wife being beautiful all the time. I could write a thesis on how problematic this is, but I will refrain and be brief. It is not okay place emphasis on aesthetic appearance, to conflate ugliness and wickedness, and to tell children that ugly people are under some sort of spell. It is similarly not okay to reproduce the gender imbalance already dominant in fairytales - the wife passively receives both the spell and her husband's presumably liberating decision, completely lacking any kind of agency. It is not okay to tell little girls that women increase in value when made more beautiful. Obviously, these ideological complications would have been fine had they been told with a heavy dose of irony - but there is not a hint of irony in sight, and a show targeted at such a wide age range shouldn't attempt shaky irony anyway. The script may be intelligent and searching in its exploration of child abuse, but its gender essentialism completely undermines any socio-political progress it does make. The production as a whole is repetitive and conventional even in attempting innovation. The cast is endearing, but hindered by a poor script. I don't have children, but if I did I would keep them far away from this.


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