When I visited the Omnibus for the first time earlier this year, it just had one theatre space and an old-fashioned bar which harked back to its time as a public library.
Imagine my surprise when I arrived for my first press engagement of the day to see that the theatre now has three spaces: the Theatre, the Studio (upstairs) and the Common Room, where Femme Fatale was playing. Why there hasn’t been a lot of publicity about the changes I’m not entirely sure, but I’m impressed.
Femme Fatale imagines a meeting between two real figures who may well have been in conflict: SCUM manifesto founder and would-be Warhol assassin Valerie Solanas and supermodel songbird Nico. We are in the late 1960s, and although the sexual revolution is a reality and feminism is on the rise, men still have the upper hand.
The set design is dominated by large Brillo pad boxes, which make up part of the Chelsea Hotel’s plush suite in which Valerie finds Nico, asleep and wanting her morning fix. Nico exists in a half-world of personal and professional disappointments,dismissed by Valerie as a “daddy fixation”.
As the ladies bond through a shared experience of being female, male audience members are emasculated and commanded, female audience members extolled to take to the streets and fight for women’s rights.
Polly Wiseman’s play – she also plays Nico – shows an understanding of the plight of a refugee in 1960s New York, but loses traction in Solanas’s textbook dismissal and distrust of all men, and in its rushed final chronology.
Better are the early scenes between the women, trying to explore common ground in desirability, creative careers, and as mothers who have walked away ftom their children. The use of film projections is effective and sometimes at odds with what the characters are saying, as if a layer has been pulled back to see into their hearts.
Sophie Olivia is a vibrant Valerie, totally devoted to the cause even though she is its only follower; she contrasts well with Wiseman’s brooding Nico, who is a romancer who uses sex as a power lever. Neither woman is a victim, as we see in their final chat on the balcony of the Chelsea Hotel.
Femme Fatale is directed by Nathan Evans and is a production by Fireraisers, who specialise in “stories of outsider women”. Their work is valuable in a space where there should be much more tolerance of all women. It runs at the Omnibus Theatre’s Common Room until the 28 October.
Photo credits: Justin David and Pau Ros