Harper is a writer. She is also a wife and mother – and she has an addiction.
This is Quid Pro Quo’s second production. Their ethos includes bringing flawed characters and theatricality to the stage. Sarah Majland’s play – she also plays the leading role of Harper – is deeply layered and definitely ambitious.
Let’s start with a few things I really liked – Harper’s almost monologue about failing to connect with her baby daughter while yearning to be the best mother possible is beautifully written.
A sniping dinner party with mocktails and an unpalatable main has a strong start and some frank observations; a moment of creativity feels fresh and positive. I also felt Majland’s performance throughout was emotionally and physically strong.
A Woman on Fire has moments of real potential; third person narration is utilised well and I felt more of it would be welcome; the use of 50s period songs to add colour (but not rock ‘n’ roll) was inspired.
This is a very long play (a first half of around 85 minutes, a second of 40), where we meet four characters, each fond of manipulation and gaslighting.
There is no one to like here; no hook for your sympathy. There’s also a casual misogyny and homophobia which I found unpalatable, while recognising the themes were meant to be difficult.
Harper’s husband Mark (Boyan Petrov) is a coward and a cheat, a cruel and crafty twister of the truth. Oliver (Öncel Camci), his friend and more, is the most underwritten of the bunch with not one word ringing true. I didn’t believe him as a sensitive gay, a bitchy figure of malice, or a successful writer.
Therese (Chloe Winney), the nanny, is complex on the outside but I found her irritating in her naivete. There’s a fun scene between her and Harper when mattters warm between them, but they are in short supply in a bleak play which takes too long transitioning between scenes and fails to move in its highly prefigured ending.
Majland’s play dips into challenging waters, but perhaps tries to achieve too much, and in so doing inadvertently trivialises mental health, alcoholism and sexual identity.
An early story about a mother and child sows a seed of unease, which never really leaves, and as the plot doesn’t let it grow, we leave unsatisfied.
This quartet are people who might feel they have the right to be happy, but they only get the slightest nugget of joy. For an audience, some scenes elicited giggles for no reason, while a couple of sections dragged along with no real purpose.
The staging was fine, utilising the full performance area and beyond, and there were some dramatic flourishes and door slamming that may have scared pub patrons heading to the gents just outside the theatre.
Sadly, I struggled to connect with A Woman On Fire – it felt just that bit too artificial, too theatrical, too aware of its own artifice.