The denial is massive, widespread and subtle. Tell a friend that you're starting to feel wobbly as you begin to approach your 50s and chances are, if she's around the same age, she'll say, "Oh, I feel fine." Most women I know of my own age are on "the patch" and feeling in the pink. Women of my mother's generation will say they can hardly remember a thing. "One day the periods stopped, that was it. I remember the odd hot flush, nothing much else."
For those of us not on HRT, however, the experience can be problematic. Ghastly, even. But who's telling? There seems to be a conspiracy of silence. Or was.
A couple of weeks ago on a rainy Tuesday night, I saw an amazing sight at Edinburgh's 1,000-seat Festival Theatre - a foyer packed almost exclusively with groups of women the wrong side of 40, chatting, giggling, generally having a good time.
They had come to see a new play, Women on the Verge of HRT, written by the 40-something Belfast writer Marie Jones. And, according to Pam Brighton, the show's director, the Edinburgh audience's almost exclusively female bias repeated the pattern set during the original Irish run: "during weekdays, women coming out in groups, and at weekends with their husbands".
Women on the Verge is unashamedly populist, a comedy with songs and a steadily darkening undertow. For once, it is a West End play addressed directly, says its producer Jenny King, at "all those women whose voices have not had a chance to be heard before". Middle-aged women and sex, after all, continue to be a source of some amusement. Only last week, the arrival in London of Sir Cliff's Heathcliff caused one paper to smirk: `Phenomenon really is too weak a word to describe what happens to otherwise sensible, middle-aged women when Cliff Richard rolls into town. They scream, they shout, they spend all their savings on tickets and then when the show is over, they throw teddy bears at him."
Marie Jones - a bouncy, Belfast-born actress-writer who for 10 years was the scripting brains behind Charabanc, a Belfast-based women's theatre company, and who now runs the North-South divide-straddling Dubbeljoint company (its name an allusive twinning of both Irish capitals) - would probably feel for Cliff's fans. For her new play - a ribald riposte to the usual consigning of middle-aged women to sexual invisibility - uses as its trigger a real-life Irish equivalent of Sir Cliff - the Hibernian C&W star, Daniel O'Donnell.
Now O'Donnell may not be a name that springs knowingly from Independent readers' lips, but, to millions, he is the nearest thing to heaven. His album releases regularly go platinum or gold, he has a huge following in America and Australia and the last time he was at the Albert Hall in London he sold out. But what makes O'Donnell special is his accessibility. He actually enjoys talking to his fans. "He's got time for everyone," says one of the vox pops heard at the start of Jones's play. In other words, he makes them feel special - a feeling HRT's two middle-aged heroines, Vera and Anna, conspicuously lack.
Visiting Donegal for an O'Donnell concert, Vera (played by Jones herself) is in loud and angry rebellion against the unfairness (as she sees it) of the biological clock. Why, despite the best endeavours of such mellowing icons as Helen Mirren and Francesca Annis, should the general, unspoken feeling remain that there's something faintly risible, if not downright distasteful, about ordinary 50-something women wanting, even needing, to express sexual feelings?
"Articles and books have been written about HRT and woman's lot and women and power," says Jones, "but it missed all those people in West Belfast, East Belfast and rural Ireland. So when you hit them with a play like this, it's the first time they've actually heard it said publicly, spoken by characters they can identify with. People come out saying, `That could be me, that was me on that stage.' And it's a relief for them, because they know they're not on their own."
For Pam Brighton, Anna and Vera are, in a sense, "victims - women stranded between all the changes that feminism has created for them and the opportunities it has opened up". At the same time, the fact of being caught, like the play's middle-aged heroines, in "a society where the demand to be beautiful has never been greater, where the stranglehold of what women look like gets tighter and tighter as it gets younger and younger" is one that even the most sophisticated and liberated among us can barely resist.
Yet as Fergal, the ever helpful waiter, says in Women on the Verge: "Isn't it natural to love beauty?" Vera's retort is swift and irresistible: for years it's been "natural" to think of women as baby-machines, but now that has changed. "Being natural," Jones implies, is only an attitude of mind - and a fluid one at that. Sex and the middle-aged woman - why ever not? `Women on the Verge of HRT' is previewing at the Vaudeville Theatre, Strand, London WC2 (0171-836 9987). Opens 3 March.
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