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‘For All the Women Who Thought They Were Mad’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 2 out of 5 stars
  1. Photograph: Helen Murray
    Photograph: Helen Murray

    Mina Andala, Joy Elias-Rilwan, Janet Kumah, Jumoke Fashola, Layo-Christina Akinlude & Jennifer Dixon

  2. Photograph: Helen Murray
    Photograph: Helen Murray

    Mina Andala (Joy) & Michael Fitzgerald (Boss)

  3. Photograph: Helen Murray
    Photograph: Helen Murray

    Mina Andala (Joy) and Janet Kumah (Rose)

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Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

Zawe Ashton’s feverish drama about a black women sliding into depression is portentous and sloggy

Zawe Ashton: ‘I tried to quit acting and it’s gone very badly’

This is the long-delayed second play (she has had two more staged since she wrote this) by Zawe Ashton – better known as an actress, and currently reprising a superlative performance in ‘Betrayal’ on Broadway. It’s taken a whopping 11 years to make it to the stage – but Jo McInnes’s production doesn’t feel like it’s quite cracked it. She’s not helped by the venue, which is a Hackney Showroom-curated pop-up stage inside Stoke Newington Town Hall, with unkind sound and energy-sucking acoustics.

This can be an issue in performances too, however: ‘For All the Women Who Thought They Were Mad’ combines poetry and a kind of heightened naturalism, but an uneven cast veers between overheated and undercooked in their delivery.

A chorus of black women of all ages feel compelled to re-tell the story of Joy; we know it’s not going to end well thanks to the repeated refrain ‘what makes a grown woman jump?’ They circle the main playing area – neon-stripped rectangles forming a floor and ceiling in Natalie Price and Ultz’s slick design – before stepping in to re-enact their part in scenes from Joy’s life, as we watch her mental health disintegrate.

Initially, she’s set up as a success story: Joy is visited by her smarmy white male boss, and told she’s finally in line for the big promotion; a cleaner, who notices her doing a victory dance, turns out to be from the same African village as her and tells warning stories about a woman there considered a witch. We never find out what the job is, or where exactly ‘home’ is – Ashton’s story operates in a generalised dream-like state, low on context or specifics. And it quickly turns into something more feverish, nightmarish. Strange echoes and repeated images – lost shoes, locked doors, ginger root – sizzle across different sections to potent effect; characters slide and merge. Joy is overheated, unwell, and then suddenly, while visiting her mother, very pregnant.

The play moves rapidly to her suffering post-partum depression; she’s lacking support, pressured at work, and unlistened to by the pill-pushing medical establishment. It’s all threaded together by the high-octane lamentations of the chorus, delivered in a staccato poetic register that at times feels overly portentous (‘sun down / moon kill sun’).

Ashton draws on a lot of interesting threads to build an almost absurdist sense of dislocation and isolation, and there are enlivening turns from Jumoké Fashola as Joy’s funny, fearsome mother and Jennifer Dixon as her concerned babysitter. But as a whole the show is too often flat and unleavened, failing to find a way to make Ashton’s heavy-going but mercurial text slither into life.

Written by
Holly Williams

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