Lockdown reviews: About 500

Planned to run in the Vault Festival 2020 in the “lost” final week, About 500 was brought to the screen last week in a live Zoom performance. I missed seeing it streamed but my grateful thanks go to writer/director Simona Hughes who made a recording available for review.

Clem is an ambitious, chatty, cheeky woman of thirty-two when she meets Luke in a bar. Although there is already a difference in their life goals (he wants to be a parent, she doesn’t), they start living together and we watch them across a decade as the countdown begins.

It isn’t a regular clock, though, but a countdown of the amount of ovulations an average woman has in her life. First signified in the stage directions as a “scattering of meringues, which will be crushed underfoot by the actors as the play progresses”, the figures start to assume more significance as Clem ages.

By Clem’s thirty-sixth birthday, she starts to feel the pull of motherhood, while Luke has other preoccupations to deal with. Both characters have moving moments as their lives start to break apart under the strain of disappointment as “Project Baby” fails to go to plan.

Stephanie Fuller and Joanna Nevin in rehearsals for About 500
Stephanie Fuller and Joanna Nevin in rehearsals for About 500

I’m a woman who has never wanted children, so I wasn’t sure if this play would connect with me. But the language is so visual, and so strong (making its enforced transfer to this split screen form with a narrator between scenes a triumph, as the audience feels engaged enough to conjure up what they are being told to see) it did make me feel an empathy with the couple.

With regular backgrounds, the actors feel very “in the moment” and have full range to emote and reach the highs and lows of their character trajectories. I felt both Stephanie Fuller’s Clem and Dickon Farmer’s Luke were totally believable, with Fuller catching at the despair of seeing her eggcount decline, digit by digit.

There was a scene towards the end between Clem and her ultrafertile older friend Ruth (Joanna Nevin) a little hard to follow, but it fits with the interview voiceover we hear now and then “you don’t know when that story ends, and how it’s going to end”. So it is for Clem, at forty-two, still in “egg-time”.

Stephanie Fuller and Dickon Farmer in rehearsals for About 500
Stephanie Fuller and Dickon Farmer in rehearsals for About 500

About 500 relates to the quick decline in fertility a woman experiences after the age of thirty-five, and the pressures of trying to balance career and family ambitions while trying not to think about a figure which runs rapidly downwards.

On stage, it has many physical depictions of this (Clem tries to stop the countdown more than once), but here we have to imagine that pressure cooker of time running down behind each scene. It worked within the Zoom environment as the source play is so well-written.

If and when this play resurfaces in a full live version, I recommend you try to take a look. I found it an involving piece of work (Simona Hughes writing and directing, Melissa Dunne as dramaturg) with an intriguing way of presenting “the raw deal that women face”.