Photos: Lidia Crisafulli
Good plays can be like good wine: enjoyable enough at the time but ah, the aftertaste! This one certainly got me thinking.
Acclaimed as a writer and performer on both the London and Edinburgh fringe, it comes as no surprise that Sticky Door, the third of Katie Arnstein’s It’s a Girl! one-actor plays, progresses from being superficially light and engaging to revealing darker depths. It may seem to be all about her, but as she slowly unpeels the humorous outer layers – we’re kept reminded it’s a comedy – she reveals a despair beneath with which many of us, not only women, may identify. We may not have had quite the same experiences but, nonetheless, have had our own demons to wrestle with. The universality of the storytelling gives the play depth and poignancy.
The first in her trio of biographical one-woman plays Bicycles and Fish told of the time when, as the eldest of three West Midland sisters, Arnstein grew from being a sixteen-year-old into a woman. Her second, Sexy Lamp narrated her experiences whilst struggling to become a performer. This, her latest and set two years further on, sees her exploring calculated, no-strings sex with men. Having got tired of a (long) string of unsatisfactory one-night stands, in 2014 she decided to take better control of her life and enjoy mini-relationships lasting no more than a month. As she flips the months over on a calendar, the audience is introduced to a variety of men.
Wisely, just as we're beginning to tire of the repetitious 'and-then-along-came so-and-so,' she segues neatly into song to, literally, up the tempo and move things on.
I had great hopes that maybe Mr July might have broken the cycle of Katie’s unsatisfactory dating experiences. Alarm bells, however, had already rung when we learnt how she hates travelling by train and coach. It’s hardly a plot spoiler to say that, by the autumn, the self-assurance we saw at the beginning has been overtaken by depression and shame as her past and continued disappointing sexual experiences catch up with her.
The title of the play comes from an edition of Desert Island Discs when Dame Minouche Shafik, former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, commented that she didn’t like the term 'glass ceiling'. She felt it implied that if you keep smashing your head against it, the glass will shatter and let other women through. She preferred a 'sticky door' where someone on the other side can help you open it. Once you’re through, you can then help the next person. Arnstein heard the programme and has written: 'this was a lightbulb moment as, for me, there has never really been a glass ceiling but a series of doors that were shut. Some of them I have got through with the help of people on the other side. Some of them have stayed firmly closed.'
My only quarrel with the strong feminist message here is, as I hinted earlier, whilst even in today’s so-called liberal climate women can still endure negative sticky door moments, many people from minority sexual, ethnic and religious groups do too.
Arnstein’s writing is brisk and witty. She admits she loves wordplay and it shows. Playing herself, she feigns being too smart for her own sneakers with a knowing, perky performance – but we’re not fooled. In her introduction to the show she half-jokingly likens herself to Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She knows she shares with her an ability to mask life’s bitter moments with humour for only so long. But, for all the acclaim she’s received, it seems she’s yet to enjoy the same degree of recognition as the creator of Fleabag. On last night’s performance, I’d say it’s overdue.
The use of rambling seemingly 'improvised' songs to add pace to the story put me in mind of the late great Victoria Wood who also wrote with jaundiced humour about sex, although here Arnstein accompanies herself strumming a ukulele rather than playing the piano.
Pacily directed by Ellen Havard, Sticky Door’s production and creative team is virtually all-female, although there’s an excellent sound design from Andrew Hollingworth. It all adds up to an entertaining but subtly moving piece of theatre that deserves a wider audience.
[On Sunday 16th February Katie Arnstein will perform the entire It’s a Girl! trilogy. I urge you to hasten along to The Vaults in Leake Street – but take a sat nav!]