Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London (****)
With extraordinary, even eerily apt timing, in the week that a judge ruled that a woman who felt she had lost her sparkle at 50 had a right to refuse life-saving dialysis treatment, the Royal Court’s latest deals precisely with the invisibility felt by older women.
Penelope Skinner’s new play centres around the eponymous high-flying Linda, a marketing executive with cosmetic firm, Swan Beauty Corporation, whose award-winning campaigns have made the firm internationally famous.
Linda is hitting 55. And suddenly, alarms bells are beginning to ring for the woman who made it, had it all: successful career, marriage, two lovely children, designer kitchen and can `still fit in the same size-ten dress suit I did fifteen years ago.’
Dave, her mentor, has brought in a youngster, 27 year-old bright-eyed blonde Amy. Amy’s campaign is preferred over, Linda thinks, her revolutionary new campaign aimed at the older woman.
This is not the first time the subject of older women and invisibility has been broached. April de Angelis’s Jumpy also dealt with a woman approaching menopause feeling her life and `visibility’ slipping away from her, though in de Angelis’s case, it was also a funny, very near the bone portrait of mother-(teenage)daughter aggro/conflict. And it’s 20 years ago – can it really be that long! – that Belfast playwright Marie Jones set a landmark with her mischievous Women on the Verge of HRT.
So yes, we’ve been here before. But Skinner’s play gives a new meaning to the phrase, `a career to die for’. Linda’s nemesis and reality check comes in the form of Amy and her relationship with Swan Beauty but exacerbated by a series of domestic upheavals triggered by the affair her dependable husband, Neil (Dominic Mafham) going through his own mid-life crisis, suddenly lapses into and more importantly, her daughter, Alice.
There’s some nifty plotting here from Skinner for Amy it turns out was implicated in an incident at Alice’s school involving photos of Alice circulating on social media – an event that ten years on has left Alice completely traumatised.
Skinner’s portrait of Amy is devastating and deeply ironic, driven on as it is by the ambition to `have it all’ that inspired Linda and which has made her such a role model to young women such as Amy. Implicit is a critique – as in other recent plays by young women playwrights such as Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) – of the unintended consequences of where feminism has taken us, arriving at a form of ruthlessness and selfishness surely never envisaged by early feminists.
Linda thought she was creating a legacy for her two daughters, of making the world a better place. Arriving at Swan Corp for work experience, the inter-action between Amy and Alice, however, proves decisive and, as with daughter so with mother, Amy’s actions push Linda beyond recovery.
Michael Longhurst’s fizzing, stylish production on a revolve – Es Devlin’s sleek, haunting design brilliantly illustrates the nexus of beauty and consumerism – boasts stunning performances, not least from Karla Crome as the self-harming Alice, dressed from head to foot in a `protective’ onesie, Imogen Byron as her sister Bridget, with acid points to make about the lack of female representation even when it comes to school auditions (she chooses a King Lear speech) and Amy Beth Hayes as the horrific Amy.
Most remarkably of all, Linda was set to be played by Sex-in-the City’s Kim Cattrall. At the last moment, she had to withdraw replaced by the wonderful Noma Dumezweni. Using the script as an aide-memoire, Dumezweni still manages to embrace cast, audience, and role – a skilfull triple-tasking that makes one wonder how even more impressive she’ll be once she is `off the book’.
As a denouement, Longhurst provides a fantastic tempest of a storm in a play that apart from finding a nice balance between male and female explores the role of fantasy in beauty and Linda’s career-long attempt to introduce it as being in the eye of the beholder rather than as a construct of the cosmetic and fashion industries. That she finally fails is not only a tragedy for Linda, under-valued alike by company and family but, Skinner implies, for society generally.