Phenomenal People

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Originally written for Exeunt.

We need to tell different stories. It’s a need that I’m reminded of every day, as I flick past the same narratives written and dominated by the same people, usually attempting to sell readers something in the process. Most of the stories that have been handed down to us represent only a tiny proportion of those who encounter them, or where we are represented it is in pale, limited colours – a faded watercolour version of who we really are.

Phenomenal People is, in a small but important way, attempting to shift that. The project from theatre producers Fuel is aimed at celebrating the stories of women in a world crowded with male narratives. And by women they mean all women, from Emily Davidson to your nan. It primarily exists online as a collection of profiles, uploaded by Fuel and by anyone who chooses to nominate their own phenomenal person, but it is also appearing in a series of live incarnations around the country, including at Camden People’s Theatre over the weekend.

This live version of the project sits somewhere between installation, performance and immersive experience. Immersive because designer Lizzie Clachan has created a gorgeous, enveloping indoor garden in the basement of Camden People’s Theatre, entirely transforming the space. Real grass – or so host Nic Green assures me – lines the floor, while trees appear at every turn. This lush, comforting cocoon in the middle of the city is completed by soothing lighting from Natasha Chivers and a sound design by Melanie Wilson that blends music (by women, of course) with snippets of female voices, all burbling away in the background like a distant brook.

At tables dotted around the space, visitors can browse the growing online catalogue of extraordinary women on iPad screens, as well as adding their own. And punctuating the green tranquillity are performances from a range of women, each celebrating their own phenomenal person through the medium of art. We get poetry from Malika Booker, an entertaining, breakneck Powerpoint presentation from Rachel Mars and a puppet show from Akiya Henry. Melanie Pappenheim lends her voice to the latest women to be nominated, curling her improvised sounds around their names, while Jenny Sealey joyously closes the afternoon with a signed rendition of “I Will Survive”.

In the spaces between performances, I find myself thinking about all the phenomenal women who have inspired me. The teachers who insisted that I had something to say. The incredible writers – Angela Carter, Virginia Woolf, Rebecca Solnit – who fed and continue to feed my imagination. The voices that help to define the soundtrack of my life: Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Kate Bush, Stevie Nicks, Regina Spektor, Debbie Harry, Nina Simone. My mum. My grandmothers. My astonishing great aunt, who just jumped out of a plane aged 80 to raise money for charity. Countless others whose art and words and acts comfort and motivate me.

It is this continuing proliferation of narratives that feels more important than the live event itself. In this form, Phenomenal People is a celebration and a spur, allowing us to toast the women who have been nominated so far and offering fuel (pardon the pun) for visitors to go away and celebrate the women who have inspired them. As an event it’s not perfect – the digital and sound elements don’t feel as smoothly integrated into the whole as they might be, and some performances are more fully formed than others – but as a project it is intensely hopeful and galvanising. And I challenge anyone to find a better way of ending the week than attempting to sign and dance along to “I Will Survive” with a room full of generous, talented and helplessly laughing women.

Nominate your own phenomenal person at www.phenomenalpeople.org.uk.

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The Lady’s Not for Walking Like an Egyptian, Ovalhouse

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Originally written for Exeunt.

“Can we finally be post-Thatcher?” asks nat tarrab, arms flung out in a gesture of frustration. The performer, one half of Mars.tarrab, doesn’t want to make a show about the Iron Lady; the duo already made that show earlier this year for Ovalhouse’s Counterculture 50 season. Then, just six weeks after the run, Margaret Thatcher died. But, contrary to tarrab’s hopes, Maggie’s legacy is far from departed.

This simultaneous presence and absence persistently haunts Mars.tarrab’s reworked version of The Lady’s Not for Walking Like an Egyptian, which – like the country itself – can never quite shake off the ghost of Thatcher. Bounding onto the stage in neon lycra and legwarmers, Rachel Mars and nat tarrab promise to transport us back to the 1980s, the decade of Madonna, monetarism and the mega musical. But these are not the “plastic fantastic” 80s, tarrab insists; this is a decade of monumental political struggles and shifts. As Mars.tarrab go on to demonstrate, however, the two are not necessarily distinct.

The driving tension at the centre of the piece stems from the two women and their very different experiences of the decade they are attempting to evoke. For Mars, who was a child of ten at the close of the 80s, it represents the era of Cats, lycra cycling shorts and Jennifer Rush’s “The Power of Love”. Tarrab, on the other hand, was eighteen by the end of the decade and actively protesting against the destruction wreaked by Thatcher’s policies. At the outset of the show, their experiences of the 80s are mapped out on their bodies with coloured tape, a playful but knowingly inadequate visual representation of the dramatically different but equally lasting impressions left on them by the decade. They are both, in contrasting ways, Thatcher’s children.

This tension, established early on, remains taut throughout the show. Mars.tarrab have the appealing, combative chemistry of a double act: Mars short, playful and frenetic, tarrab tall and full of righteous rage. Their competitive dynamic and apparently incompatible views of the 80s act as a motor, powering the piece forwards at a furious pace through the Faulklands, the free market economy and Section 28. The inspired framing device of the show, meanwhile, is also born through a kind of conflict, as Thatcher’s speeches are spliced up with lyrics from songs by female artists of the decade. Monetarism meets “Material Girl”, while homophobic rhetoric enters a head-on collision with Whitney Houston.

Out of this structure of conflict and juxtaposition emerges a show that is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking. The utterly bonkers joy of the two performers on space hoppers jars painfully with the sinking of the Belgrano; tarrab’s deeply felt objections to representing Thatcher are silenced with a showering of milk. There is, both in the positions represented by each of the artists and the string of contrasts throughout, a duality that reflects the problematic legacy of Thatcher and the decade she dominated. One is given the impression, despite the resistance to this idea, that there is no going back to before – before Thatcher, before the free market, before everything that is now so embedded in our society – and that Mars and tarrab’s opposed experiences will never quite be reconciled. Even at the show’s beautifully judged climax, which recognises and seemingly relents to the seductive power of nostalgia and sentimentality that 80s pop culture understood so well, tarrab stubbornly reminds us that this is no straightforward resolution.

The troubling ambivalence of the decade as seen through the eyes of Mars.tarrab is perhaps best summed up in one moment: Mars as a riotously zealous Thatcher announcing Section 28, while tarrab perches precariously on a teetering pile of chairs, speaking the words of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” as an anguished appeal to the audience. Like the show itself, it’s a simultaneous punch to the gut and the funny bone, with a queasy aftertaste of discomfort.