Raving Beauties – review

This review first appeared in Sabotage Reviews

Raving Beauties 
Literary Leicester festival
Attenborough Arts Centre, 10 November 2015

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What with body image and the tampon tax, women’s bodies are still ‘up there’ as far as media interest is concerned, never mind the all-pervading male (and female) gaze directed women’s way.

Hallelujah, therefore for the Raving Beauties. This women’s theatre company performed on Channel 4’s opening night in 1982 and “was born out of a deep sense of frustration with domesticity, naiveté and a burning need for a creative outlet”.

As one of the opening acts in this year’s University of Leicester Literary Leicester festival, the Raving Beauties read from their most recent collection Hallelujah for the 50ft Women (Bloodaxe Books, 2015). Gathering poetry by over 120 women, including Vicki Feaver, Deborah Alma, Hollie McNish and Carol Ann Duffy, the Raving Beauties have toured globally since the 1980s and published numerous collections, many with The Women’s Press.
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Inspired by the ‘Beauties’ retrospective look back over their 30 plus years together, this collection considers where we’re at now; of course lives have changed in that time, what with nurturing children and careers as well as the wider aspect of the evolution of feminism. But has anything changed in terms of women’s relationships with their bodies? Image and expectation are still very much part of a woman’s clothing and this collection highlights the good, bad, naughty and nice through the power of poetry.

Subdued-ish lighting frames the simple staging of four chairs all in a row, one of which is already occupied by a large rag doll (Sandy), a woman in red. Dee, Sue and Fan enter in their LBDs and coordinating mustard leggings and scarves (and before any accusations of the media’s obsession with appearance can stick, I have no idea ‘who’ they were wearing; clothing is mentioned only to show some thought had gone into design).

The audience’s seating arrangement maybe has a technical name but let’s call it V-shaped, tapering from the hips of the stage to its tip at the back of the space, giving an inclusive feel and providing a walkway down which the performers occasionally venture.

And then there are the magnificent poems, all 36 of them, sometimes read by one, sometimes two or all three performers, but if not reading, they – including Sandy – still add to the poem with subtle body movements, postures or song riffs (for example Meghan Trainor’s ‘All About that Bass’ during Grace Nichols’ ‘Invitation’).

Many spoken word events feature a writer reading their own work; you could argue the writer knows best how they want their work performed, however, we’ve all been to readings where good work on the page is lost somewhere in the translation to audible. Notwithstanding this, and as with any text, another layer of interpretation is added when read by another. With three actors (and also between them, singer, musician, writer, director) delivering their idea of the writer’s meaning, this gives the poems wings.

There are many highlights in this show, however, as a few examples, Dee’s reading of Nicola Daly’s ‘God save me from women with choppy bobs’ was knowing and witty:

“… they all eat sushi and talk about their clitoris every seven seconds …”

Fan tackled Barbara Smith’s epic list poem ‘Pair Bond’ with aplomb, relishing every full-frontal syllable:

“… my cupcakes, my soda bread, my bloomin’ baps,
my brilliant bangers, my brash bazookas,
my windscreen wipers, my Winnebagos …”

Sue transforms into Rhiannon, a teenager from a South Wales council estate known as the Rock with Gemma Howell’s poignant ‘Annuva Bun inee Ovun’

“It wiz f’thuh best ough,
I wuz pregnant wiv Levi,
mist all uv my examz, I ded.
Tuh my life I sed g’bye.”

Although this show is clearly and refreshingly focussed on women, for all its insightful musings on blood, shoes, hair, mothers, breasts, legs (as well as less concrete subjects such as religion, sex and hunger), this did not appear to alienate the handful of men in the audience.

Inevitably, I bought the collection after the show and it could just become my most well-thumbed poetry collection; to hell with the diet, so many poetic riches to feast on.

Poems for both the collection and the show have been selected and sequenced with thought and care by the Raving Beauties, who clearly understand poetry and performance.

They are bold, they are fearless: hallelujah for these wonderful 50ft women.

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