Imagine, if you will, a world in which women are expected to be immaculately groomed, well-mannered, subservient and open to even the most outrageous ‘come-ons’ from men. It is not difficult for someone of my advancing years as that is how things were until the end of the last century, and still are in some less enlightened quarters.
In the 1950s when I was a child and my mother would take me for walks, it was impossible for us to pass a stretch of roadworks or a building site without hearing a chorus of wolf-whistles and ‘Hello! love’. My mother was a very good-looking woman, sadly I take after my dad, and presented herself well, being a some time demonstrator for various make-up brands in Lewis’s department store in Leeds. For the benefit of my younger readers, i.e. those under 40, Lewis’s occupied the whole of the building on The Headrow which is now Sainsbury’s, TK Maxx, Argos and Home Sense. These unsolicited advances were taken as being normal behaviour in those days, in fact some of her friends were jealous of the attention she would attract and bemoan that they were never the object of what they perceived to be the same level of flattery. How times change.
My mother’s friends would have absolutely no need for a course at Smile Club which was the setting for a brilliant performance from Andrea Heaton, who also co-wrote the piece with Adam Z. Robinson. It was staged in the intimate surroundings of Bramall Rock Void at Leeds Playhouse, a space which is perfect for this dystopian tale. It is so intimate that I must apologise to Ms Heaton if the old git with the note-book and pen only a couple of feet from her on the front row proved to be a distraction in any way. If I did she was far too professional to show it.
The main character is Lisa who, after a particularly fraught day, is making her way home via the station where she finds the barrier has stuck. She asks the attendant, who regularly makes unwanted comments to her, if he will open the gate and allow her through. He refuses to do so until she has given him a smile. The situation develops when his co-worker asks her for something more than a smile at which point she loses it and handbags him. This incident leads to her being ordered to follow a course at Smile Club to teach her the error of her ways.
Smile Club is a performance rather than a play and consists of Andrea Heaton morphing into several characters who are concerned with the course on which she finds herself. As well as Lisa they range from Julie, who presents the course in a style akin to someone selling cheap jewellery on a shopping channel, through to an obnoxious loud-mouth husband spouting his views to his wife who is also on the course. She flits effortlessly between all the characters and also the various emotions she feels as she progresses through the programme.
As well as being a piece concerned with social comment there are a number of twists in the plot which I don’t want to spoil by delving too deeply, save to say that the course does not always achieve its objectives.
The creative team were equally responsible for adding to the overall impression of the piece changing the mood from frothy to sinister in the blink of an eye. As Lisa put it ’the atmosphere is soft but the punishment hard’.
The performance was directed by Rod Dixon, Artistic Director of Red Ladder Theatre Company, with his usual inventive flair and vision.
Adam Foley was the Lighting and Video Designer interpreting the shocks and moods superbly well. The happy nature of the institution was conveyed by the use of two tv screens carrying adverts for Smile Club which extolled the benefits of attending a course. It was in a style akin to a Pearl and Dean cinema ad combined with a post-war public service announcement. The jumps and crackles on the video indicating that it had been shown on a loop for a very long period of time.
The shock and awe were also accentuated by the Sound Designer, Ed Heaton as were the more tranquil moments which we knew would be shattered at any moment.
Emma Williams designed the Set and Costumes. The latter consisted of a raincoat, a t-shirt, a pair of trousers and a rather well-worn dress which Lisa was made to wear when she arrived at Smile Club. This uniform worked wonderfully showing, like the video, that it had been used many times in the past but had been twee and cutesy when new. It was a floral design – flippant and feminine – with a white tie collar – waitress like and servile. The set was a small capsule with the aforementioned tv screens, shelves, a chair and a couple of cupboards. This is one aspect which I didn’t particularly understand. The piece was supposed to have been set in the future but the furniture and tvs looked dated even for 2020, so, unless it is being suggested that Smile Club has already been in existence for some years, I don’t get it. I am sure that the reason will come to me in a day or two when it is too late to include.
In Andrea Heaton, Red Ladder have found a truly wonderful actor and I sincerely hope that we will be seeing much more of her in the future, as well as benefiting from her writing which thus far seems to have been aimed at the younger audience.
Finally, I must say that I did find the portrayal of all of the men being chauvinistic pervs, and the women victims, to be a little simplistic and, if I may say so, a tad offensive. Even in those post-war days of men being men and women being women, I was always taught to proffer my fellow humans of whatever gender, religion or colour, the same amount of respect I would expect from them, and then a little bit more for good measure. I do realise that this piece, although written from the perspective of a feminist, is transferrable to other traditional relationships between groups of people and is really concerned with the whole concept of control and brainwashing, but that didn’t allay the impression. So much so that when I left the auditorium I bumped into some people from Red Ladder who asked me if I had enjoyed the show. I said I had but I would be giving it a bad review lest any praise be seen as a sexual advance. Well, you can’t be too careful nowadays. It raised a smile!
Smile Club is at Leeds Playhouse until Saturday, 7th March. Please follow the link for more information and tickets.
After its run at Leeds Playhouse it continues on tour to several venues around the Leeds area and then countrywide. For more information click on:
Unless otherwise stated photographs provided by Leeds Playhouse