Blurred Lines, theatre review: Robin Thicke meets The Equality Illusion

4.00

The Shed, National Theatre, London

One of the more preposterous statements of 2013 was provided by Robin Thicke. Trying to defend the video of his song “Blurred Lines” from the charge of that it's misogynistic and promotes a culture of date-rape, he claimed that “It's actually a feminist movement within itself.  It's saying that men and women are equals as animals and as power”. 

It remains unclear quite how he squares that belief with the fact that the men are fully clad while the women – exhorted to stop being good girls and do what they “really want” – strut around wearing only flesh-coloured G-strings. 

Thicke's ditty was one of the provocations for this sharp and challenging new theatre piece. Devised by dramatist Nick Payne, director Carrie Cracknell and an 8-strong all-female company, the play draws inspiration from Kat Banyard's book The Equality Illusion (2010) and its shocking statistics about domestic violence, conditions of employment, and the tsunami of online porn that is objectifying the female body more prevalently than ever before. 

The show is staged on a precipitous white staircase (the design is by Bunny Christie) that flashes with neon colours and one of the visual refrains is the sight of various characters, forced to negotiate this terrain in unfeasibly high heels, eventually chucking their footwear down to the bottom in disgust.

The performers, who have helped to develop the material through improvisation, bring a strong sense of their own personal warmth, shrewdness and humour to the proceedings and the evening gets off to a very funny start as they introduce themselves to us in a lengthy roll-call of TV casting cliches – “killer's wife, non-speaking; Northern blonde, bubbly; Older Mum, character-face”. 

The absurdity of these confining stereotype is hilariously brought home by this rhythmically relentless litany. Payne has a poet's ear and there's a potent antiphonal music to the dialogue in the dramatised vignettes. In one of these, a married couple wrangle wretchedly about his use of prostitute and his illusion that they have made a free career choice. 

In another blackly comic workplace episode, Claire Skinner as a copywriter and new mother, is horribly patronised with fake “concern” by her female boss and concludes that the real problem is that the latter “basically became a man”.

There's a deadpan announcement towards the end that the company were refused permission to perform “Blurred Lines” but the show, which includes a very moving look at the psychological and legal fall-out from a date-rape, is appositely punctuated with pop classics on a similar level of enlightenment – the Crystals' “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)" and Tammy Wynnette's  "Don't Liberate Me (Just Love Me)”. 

Thicke and his attempted defence of his song spring to mind in the stingingly self-reflexive Q & A coda in which the excellent Marion Bailey portrays an impermeably smug patriarchal director is called on to explain why he had Sinead Matthew's nervously gushy actress (“I feel incredibly secure with his process”) play a violent bedroom scene in sexy lingerie. 

A thought-provoking, finely modulated 70 minutes.

To 22 Feb; 020 7452 3000

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