IT is no coincidence that Mia McCullough’s The Squirrel Plays showcased at the Wandsworth Arts Fringe a week ago.
The play’s showing – well, two plays combined into one – was timed to pre-empt the vote in Ireland (May 25) on whether the Eighth Amendment should be repealed. If this happens, it will pave the way for women to have unrestricted abortions in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy – and in exceptional cases thereafter. Currently, termination of a pregnancy is illegal and any one breaking the law could end up in prison. It results in women travelling overseas to have abortions.
McCullough’s play, a knitting together of Infestation (The Funny Little Abortion Play) and Compensation, tackles the prickly issue of abortion in an unconventional manner. It does this by using the metaphor of a squirrel.
The offending squirrel occupies a new home that Tom (Hugh Stubbins) and Sarah (Amy Reitsma) have just moved into. It is there, scratching around in the attic, despite assurances from the estate agent (Katherine Leyva) beforehand that the home is squirrel-free. ‘Is there a history of squirrels in the property?’ asks Tom. ‘Is the home prone to squirrels?’ He is vehemently anti-squirrel.
It does not take long for the squirrel’s presence to gnaw away at the couple. ‘We bought this house under false pretences,’ exclaims Tom when he spots Sarah looking at a squirrel perched on the fence. Sarah’s retort is to urge Tom to calm down and show restraint – ‘we’re Buddhists,’ she argues. Anxiety spreads to the bedroom and it is not long before a pest controller is brought in to trap the squirrel in a cage.
Yet while Tom wants it dead, Sarah starts to get attached to it. She talks to the squirrel and urges it to leave. Tom moves out of the matrimonial bed. When the squirrel is not fooled by bait, poison is used. ‘I’m sorry about this,’ says Sarah. ‘I feel really terrible. You seem really sweet.’
When the deed is done, Sarah declares: ‘we shouldn’t kill everything we don’t like.’ ‘Did you love it?’ asks Tom. ‘Yes’ is Sarah’s answer.
That is the Infestation part of the play. The second half, Compensation, deals with who should be responsible for the squirrels – individuals or society. It introduces us to neighbours Alice (Bee Scott, also the pest controller), Linda (Katherine Leyva) and Nancy (Laufey Haralds). Their conversations cover population control, grey and black squirrels (the play is set in America) and whether feeders put up by one member of the community should be taken down. It all culminates in a neighbourhood vote.
The play is clever, maybe too clever at times. But its savings grace is the improvisation shown by the actors who are members of embryonic theatre company Part of The Main – a group determined to get more women on stage. Between them they employ their own bodies and various props to make a vertical marital bed, the frame of an attic and best of all a bathroom (you can’t help but smile at this little bit of smart theatre). The houses of the neighbourhood are represented as nesting boxes with colours to match the clothes of the residents who ‘live’ in them.
The Squirrel Plays, produced by Olivia Munk and directed by Jessica Bickel-Barlow, will show at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August. Worth searching out if you are paying this wonderful festival a visit.