THERE is no doubt that Sarah Daniels’ Masterpieces was a masterpiece of writing when it hit the stage in Manchester 35 years ago.
It was way ahead of its time, challenging misogyny, a male dominated society and most strongly the destructive impact of pornography. A moral cancer that perpetuated violence against women and kept patriarchy firmly in place. A society which accepted that men in power could literally do what they wanted with women – however small their powerbase was – and get away with it. Outrageous.
The play, which won Daniels awards, stirred emotions and controversy. Anger, shock, outrage and more besides.
Bravely, the Finborough Theatre, never frightened of a challenge, has now resurrected the play, resulting in its first London showing since 1983.
It is a coruscating piece of work although it will jar with many because director Melissa Dunne has been honest to Daniels’ work. The terrible jokes that frame the first of 17 scenes, set in a restaurant, would get you locked up today. Jokes casually told about rape that get guffaws from the diners. Listening to them makes you shudder. Not even Les Dawson, God rest his soul, would have got away with them. Un PC to the power of eternity.
Dunne has also stuck to how Daniels cast her characters with actors (with one notable exception) playing more than one role. This is done to emphasise how people from similar backgrounds – working class for example – can either fall by the wayside or survive and thrive. Yet they are connected in other ways – in the case of characters Yvonne and Hilary (played quite magnificently by Tessie Orange-Turner) by an obnoxious individual (Ron) who is both husband of Yvonne and a predator of Hilary.
The heartbeat of Masterpieces is Rowena, the one role which an actor (Olivia Darnley) stays with throughout the play – again a deliberate Daniels ploy.
Rowena is a social worker who is unfortunately married to an annoying Trevor (Edward Killingback). Rowena’s mother, Jennifer (a delightfully snobby Sophie Doherty), is married second-time around to an awful Clive (Nicholas Cass-Beggs) who loves his porn videos and is a teller of rape jokes. The relationship is broken – no surprise there.
Completing most of the jigsaw is Rowena’s friend from school days, Yvonne, who is a teacher fed up with the stream of pornographic material brought in by kids. Her relationship with husband Ron (Rob Ostlere) is also broken. Borderline abuse.
Then there is Hilary, a single mother, who Rowena visits in her role as a social worker. Hilary only keeps afloat by doing favours to men in return for cash. When Rowena tries to help her break away from prostitution by getting her a job with slippery Ron, it triggers a series of events that end up with an innocent man being pushed under a train. Pornography is the trip switch.
This is a play that shows its age. But it still has a huge relevance against the backdrop of the Me Too movement and the patriarchal society that still persists to this day. It shows that we have moved on from the 1980s but we still have a long way to go. The 1980s, viewed through today’s prism, appear like the Dark Ages.
The set is brilliantly designed by Verity Quinn with covers of Mayfair and Penthouse plastering the walls – but slightly blurred behind see-through plastic sheeting, reinforcing the sense of seediness. As for the music, which kick-starts each scene, it gets the hips twisting (hats off to sound designer Domenico Menghini). Everything from Squeeze through to Chris de Burgh (yes Lady in Red) and Siouxsie and the Banshees. The musical essence of a lost youth.
Some of the acting is sensational. Doherty transforms with ease from the haughty Jennifer to a sympathetic Irish policewoman while Orange-Turner’s Hilary is probably the star turn of the night. How she accidentally got pregnant, despite getting her partner to wear a condom and douching herself with coke afterwards is one of the most entertaining moments of the night. Orange-Turner delivers it magnificently.
The fact that you end up hating Clive, Ron and Trevor – to different degrees – indicates that Cass-Beggs, Ostlere and Killingback nail their parts.
This is an important reprise from Dunne. Yet again, Finborough Theatre’s daring pays off. Not quite a masterpiece but on the road to being one.