In the week Nigel Farage told a conference that mums who take time off to raise their children are ‘worth less’ as employees, the Hampstead Theatre has staged a play about whether women have to choose between family and a successful career.
It’s an old dilemma, and one that many of us would hope had been put to rest with numerous mothers now heading up FTSE 250 companies.
But as Farage’s idiotic comments show, it’s a debate that keeps being resurrected. Luckily, the wonderful cast give it dynamism where the script gets a bit heavy. Writer Gina Gionfriddo even offers us a brief history of feminism through Cathy’s lectures, a media-savvy academic played by Emilia Fox.
The classroom moments are fun if you enjoy lectures, but they are very long and a bit unnecessary — to watch a play about feminism do you really need to know about Phyllis Schlafly’s opposition to the equal rights movement? If you’ve been dragged here and feminism just ain’t your thing don’t worry, though, Fox appears wearing only heels and sexy underwear in the second half, so there’s something for everyone.
In a coup for the theatre, this is Fox’s first play in ten years. She sparkles, portraying a sexy, ambitious woman in her early forties. But she covets the life of sweet, seemingly unthreatening Gwen (Emma Fielding) her college buddy and the woman who stole her university boyfriend, married him and became a stay-at-home mum. And conveniently, Gwen’s got itchy feet too.
Avery, 21, Gwen’s smart-talking babysitter and Cathy’s precocious student (Shannon Tarbet) delivers the best sassy one-liners, drolly summing up what might be the premise of the play while flicking her iPad: “Women are fucked either way. Do you have a family and wind up lonely and sad? or have a career and wind up lonely and sad?”
Cathy’s mother Alice (played with a compelling blend of female cunning and tenderness by Polly Adams) encourages Cathy to embark on an affair with Gwen’s husband Don, giving us a neat summary of all generations’ reactions to the debate. Adam James portrays Don as a charming man, hugely committed to his life of mediocrity, directed with wit and superb comic timing by Peter Dubois. It’s a great character, but hard to believe high-achiever Gwen can really want him as a long-term proposition.
Ultimately, Gwen and Cathy are stuck with their choices; family or career, not both. Neither of them is terribly miserable but neither is completely content either.
Is Gionfriddo saying we can’t have it all, after all? Interestingly, with all the references to the grass always being greener, the naturalistic set lacks one glaring detail. The grass under their feet isn’t green at all, it’s blue. Maybe it’s not deliberate, but for me it was a message. Maybe women don’t want green grass, whether it’s neatly trimmed with a picket fence or wild and free (there’s an obvious pubic hair analogy to be made, but this isn’t the place). Maybe for the babies/career debate to move forward, we need to start asking new questions about what women want instead of circling around the old ones.
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