Theatre review: Ladies Unleashed

Our theatre reviewer, Hannah Hobson, shares her thoughts on Ladies Unleashed at Hull Truck Theatre.

Gemma Oaten and Allison Saxton. Photography: Ian Hodgson.

The latest addition to Hull Truck’s 50th anniversary season, Ladies Unleashed comes as a kind of mission statement for the best of the company’s work. A strong voice, deeply rooted in the community, eyes both on the past and the approaching future, and all done with a fab sense of humour. This is the third in Amanda Whittington’s trilogy of plays – following Ladies Day (2005) and Ladies Down Under (2007) – which sees four old friends from the Hull fish docks and their adventures far from home. For Ladies Unleashed, this means the island of Lindisfarne. Do not, however, let its status as a sequel put you off, as this is a play that stands firmly on its own narrative axis.

The power of Ladies Unleashed is in its characters. We follow a true ensemble cast of personalities. The central four friends are Jan, Pearl, Linda and Shelley played by Allison Saxton, Fenella Norman, Sara Beharrell and Gemma Oaten, respectively. Whittington’s writing draws out all the love, irritation and grievance in a group of friends who were once inseparable and now have some old gripes to bash out. The isolation of the island setting forms the perfect pressure cooker to set off some conflict both hilarious and moving. All of this is paralleled by the distant past in the form of Mabel and Daisy, played by Martha Godber and Nell Baker, two herring girls trying not to get stuck working the ‘silver darlings’ all their days. It lends the play a kind of magical realism, adding a certain otherworldly quality underpinned by some epic staging. There is a scale in the play’s writing which is reminiscent of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, a sense not just of these women living their ordinary but important lives but also of their ancestry in history.

Sara Beharrell, Gemma Oaten and Allison Saxton. Photography: Ian Hodgson.

As I noted, it’s an ensemble cast in the most literal sense of the word. It is impossible to identify any one star, these women are a team, each with small moments where they shimmer. Saxton and Oaten spar off each other, their warring character quirks sparking like flints. As Pearl, Fenella Norman gives a beautiful second act monologue exploring choices she’s made and the things she’s sacrificed to live her life. The group leader, Sara Beharrell, is a kind foil for her dysfunctional friends and a soft contrast to the big personalities she shares the stage with. Then Godber and Baker, providing a snapshot of a tender female friendship, haunting the play with its warmth, ease and laughter.

This is a production which hints at a more epic scope than its bottled setting. Caitlin Mawhinney’s set and costume is simple, filling the stage with silver rocks and curling blue lines to suggest a cold North Sea beach. A vast white projection screen, rocky and uneven, forms the backdrop for Ed Grimoldby’s evocative and spectacular projection designs, which effervesce alongside Jessie Addinall’s lighting design to create some real stage magic. All of this is supported by subtle sound design from Sonum Batra.

Nell Baker and Martha Godber. Photography: Ian Hodgson.

The cohesion, simplicity and elegance of this production has to be credited to Mark Babych’s directorial vision. In the hands of a lesser director, this play could have been left floundering, the themes vague and the connective tissue intangible. Yet Babych transforms the main auditorium at Hull Truck into a playground of stagecraft. It is a masterwork of balancing the ethereal and technological with real grounded character work.

Ladies Unleashed has something for everyone, from Whittington’s clever and funny dialogue, paired with some heart-wrenching scenes exploring womanhood and friendship, to the stunning production design. There is some song and dance, led by Martha Godber, and movement directed by Freddie Garland. It could be a good night out or a serene and reflective evening at the theatre depending on how the mood takes you. It is the perfect example of how Hull Truck Theatre has spent its last fifty years, and hopefully will spend its next fifty: creating pioneering theatre right on our doorstep.

[Hannah Hobson – Theatre reviewer]