Bazaar and Rummage by Sue Townsend with lyrics and music by Shirlie Roden
Sue Townsend writes from the heart – her experiences of family life, 1980s British society and culture, politics, religion and mental health are explored in all her works. It’s a bold choice for a theatre company to tackle a play with such a range of themes and ideas ingrained in a very different society. Polly English’s production is illuminating, dynamic and fascinating, shedding light on a dated text.
We’re in a shabby church hall in Acton where three women with agoraphobia are helping their social workers to set-up and run a ‘bazaar and rummage’. Sue Townsend offers two contrasting characters to voice the politics of the day – Gwenda is an old-fashioned social worker intent on helping her clients using the tried and tested methods of medication and stoicism. Fliss is a student, currently unqualified as a social worker but taking every opportunity to ask questions and uncover the hidden lives of those women she supports. Gwenda accuses her of being a Bennite, a Trot, a commie. There’s an interesting debate here about methods of care which is still absolutely relevant today. Is medication the best solution to mental health problems? How best can people be supported in taking back control of their lives? What happens when people become dependent on others who don’t necessarily have their best interests at heart? Neither social worker has all the answers – Sue Townsend is careful to state her debate’s terms via complex, inconsistent, flawed characters. There are no simplistic solutions here, but plenty of interesting ideas to debate at length in the pub afterwards.
The play tries to tackle perhaps too many themes – if it were subject to Trigger Warnings they might run to a number of pages – and would have been more successful if it had addressed fewer ideas in greater depth. Sue Townsend is a heart-on-the-sleeve writer though, and the play certainly offers some excellent roles for the 6 strong actors in CUDOS’s production. Leonie Dash appears late in the play as a harassed police officer and offers a brief glimpse of how the ‘outside world’ has stresses equivalent to the interior lives of the women we’ve spent the play getting to know. Dendy Harris and Diana Hodgson are convincing and sincere as the social workers with morally opposite perspectives. Sarah Elliott is touchingly fragile as the Barry Manilow-obsessed Katrina, Sheena Wilkins is uptight but sympathetic as the recently bereaved grime-fighter Isabel and Kerry Peters portrayal of Margaret is full of estuary vowels, strong language, bitterness, passion and soul.
It’s inspiring to see an all-female cast in a somewhat forgotten play, directed by Polly English, with music and lyrics by Shirlie Roden.