One-Woman Show review: Liz Kingsman skewers the ‘messy woman’ with deliciously disorientating defiance

·3-min read
‘One woman show’ proves that nothing is too good for parody (Will Bremridge)
‘One woman show’ proves that nothing is too good for parody (Will Bremridge)

A few years ago, theatre was enamoured with the “messy woman”. From mainstream venues to fringe festivals, female theatre makers wanted to push aside the stereotypes and tell their own stories about the complexities of life for the young, modern woman. As an audience member, I’ve seen many excellent shows in this formula (often at the Soho Theatre itself). But Liz Kingsman’s One-Woman Show, currently in a sold-out second run at the venue, proves that nothing is too good for parody. The genre may have been built around shaking off outdated tropes, but it has built up a whole new language of its own. Women don’t have to be perfect anymore, we’re told – they can be “rude, up themselves… abusive, even”.

Kingsman’s show is wonderfully snarky, metatheatrical and manic. The one-woman show within One-Woman Show is titled “Wildfowl”, and centres on a twentysomething woman working for a bird conservation charity. Our nameless hero (these mysterious women rarely have names) is quirky and self-identifies as “sexy in a non-threatening way”. She’s prone to eye rolls, inappropriate sexual comments, and launching into monologues thick with metaphors (often in spoken-word form) about the perils of modern dating and the earth-shattering idea that social media might be bad, actually.

Over an hour, the expected tropes of this character are mimicked and unpicked, along with those of the broader genre. The supporting characters (all voiced by Kingsman) are broad stereotypes only serving to further her central narrative, from the chatty Australian boss who asks her about her problems to the northern best mate who is constantly rolling a cigarette. Lighting and sound cues also play with and warp these stereotypes, with strobe lights and blackouts used to demonstrate both elicit sexual activity and letting loose in the nightclub. After all, as our hero points out, “There’s no point hitting rock bottom unless you do it in a fit way.”

If One-Woman Show was a straight-up parody, it wouldn’t be so singular. It’s the bizarre details in Kingsman’s writing and performance that elevate the production and make it unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Flirtatious touching of the face and fiddling with the hair is taken to grotesque extremes, Kingsman pulling her mouth into gargoyle-like expressions. On her way to work, it’s noted in passing that she punches a charity worker in the face. “I’m sorry, but we don’t have to be likeable any more,” she says, with trademark #Girlboss defiance.

Within Kingsman’s script, the gag rate is genuinely astonishing. Jokes come so thick and fast that the audience are often still clutching their sides from the last line before being hit by another, and another. It’s the comedy equivalent of just regaining your balance after being toppled by a crashing wave, only to be immediately pulled under again. The meta elements in the script have a similar impact – even when we’ve been told that what we’re seeing is or isn’t real, it’s still hard to know what we can trust. The combination makes for a deliciously disorientating experience, where you never know what to expect next.

But among all the laughs, Kingsman makes profound points about the nature of this genre of theatre. She clearly has a complex relationship with it, and breaks the fourth wall at multiple points to chide herself for mocking it – although that sincerity never lasts for long before it’s undercut. Still, fascinating points are raised. Yes, it’s good that women don’t have to be one-dimensional wives and girlfriends anymore, but does this glut just reinforce outdated gender stereotypes? And do the women who get to make these shows, who are often white, middle-class and successful, even fit the characters they’re playing? The phrase: “You’re not a mess, you just want to be seen as one,” is left ringing in my ears – one of many moments in One-Woman Show I just can’t shake.

‘One Woman Show’ runs at Soho Theatre until 15 January

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