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McEwan's Women
Etcetera Theatre
15th August 2015

★★★☆☆

Publicity image for McEwan's Women

Photography provided by Little Willow Productions

After failing to elicit any decent tips from us, an accordion-playing busker (Kevin Potton) attempts to attract the attention of a lone woman (Hannah Keighron) who has just sat down at a café. Does he want to serenade her in a bid to secure a few more coins? Maybe he just wants a bit of human interaction, a casual conversation with an amenable stranger to make the day seem brighter? Whatever his motives for approaching her, suddenly the pair tumble from the present into the novel that the woman was reading to pass the time.

McEwan's Women has been devised by Keighron, along with David Richard Fox, who also directs it. Quite simply, the piece does what it says on the tin: the co-playwrights have taken McEwan's texts, cherrypicked various female protagonists and put them on stage. Although Potton does narrate some of the background for us, these seven women largely stand on their own; we lose a lot of preamble and the attachment you get from spending pages and pages with a character. The women are instead forced to make a quick first impression.

Briony from Atonement apologises to Robbie for actions which basically amount to ruining his life. When you consider that Joe Wright's film adaptation was over two hours, the time we spend with this Briony barely allows us to scratch the surface of protagonist's extreme guilt. Florence from On Chesil Beach has a difficult conversation with her new husband Edward, admitting that whist she loves him, she really doesn't want to sleep with him. Against this innocence and naïveté, we also meet Melissa from Solar who tricks her boyfriend Michael into fathering a child, and Caroline from The Comfort of Strangers, who has a submissive relationship with her husband Robert. And then there's Serena and Julie too. Given the play is only 45 minutes in total, it's an ambitiously fast gallop through McEwan's work.

The women we meet are all at different stages of their lives and have different attitudes towards sex, but it is clearly sexuality (or the lack of it) which dominates all their stories. McEwan's women were never bland uncomplicated protagonists anyway, but the manner in which Keighron and Fox strip them of their context highlights their femininity and instinctive desires.

Keighron and Potton are dressed classically, allowing them to span the different locations and time periods as they hop through McEwan's writing. The initial setting suggests an anonymous café in Italy, with the screen painted with the image of a tree and signs for coffee and ice creams. Although with the busker singing American English songs by Cole Porter, perhaps not. It's a fairly ambiguous suggestion by Fox. The screen not only hints at a possible location, but practically allows Keighron to duck behind it and tweak her clothing for the different roles.

The company clearly have a fondness for McEwan, and this is an intriguing introduction to his work for those who don't know it already. Potton's highly controlled singing is a delight, and both he and Keighron differentiate between their many different parts well. However McEwan's Women is but a fleeting glimpse of the novelist's complex characterisation.

McEwan's Women opened on 13th August and runs until 16th August 2015 at the Etcetera Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)



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