In 1956, the widows of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein meet in a renovated community centre for their annual breakfast, where the prize-winning quiche will be declared in a muchanticipated ceremony. The sudden threat of an atomic bomb forces the women in this idyllic American town to begin sharing their deepest secrets, which lead to some notso-shocking confessions from the society’s leaders.
I went to a comedy gig recently where one performer opined that “the problem with football fans is they think that watching 100s of hours of something makes them an expert. If that were really true, I would be the best lesbian lover in the world.” Was he referring to Imperial College DramSoc’s production of “Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche” (FLEQ), directed by Elena Stein? Probably not, but that’s his loss. This was a show that took a superb script and brought it to life through a combination of quality production, immersive audience interaction and most importantly an excellently cast group of actresses who left me questioning my distaste for quiche.
The show opens with the five members of the Susan B. Anthony Society entering from the rear of the Union Concert Hall, who talk to the audience as they walk towards the stage. Some of those approached looked quite terrified, though whether this was because of the surprise of being spoken to during a play or because Imperial students in general are frightened of social interaction was unclear. Regardless, it was a unique start that could have quite easily gone wrong, but rather demonstrated immediately that the actresses didn’t feel constrained or rigid and robotic in their assumed characters, but rather composed and fluid.
From the moment they assume the stage, we as an audience are under the impression we are witnessing an event far greater than any of us: the unveiling of the prize winning quiche. Our immersion in this 50’s cold war setting is amplified by Amanda Williamson’s set. The Wall of Past Presidents of the society looms tall above the 5 senior members (the audience are given name tags and treated as lesser members throughout), whilst the gawkish and repugnant wallpaper will seem familiar to those who lived in these times/Fisher Hall. The only moment it really falls short is when a door described as being “military grade” and “radiation proof ” is slammed shut only for it to shake and nearly fall off its hinges. The lighting (Elena Stronach) is spot on throughout, contributing one of the show’s biggest laughs, and the sound design (Robert Schüssler) is professional and well executed.
What makes this show truly memorable, however, is the quality of the acting. Acting is like cooking; you don’t need to know anything about how it’s done to appreciate it when it’s performed well. This is a good thing, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to write this review. When “Dale” (Olivia Gatliff) is killed by radiation (if you cared so much about spoilers you would have bothered to watch the play, you philistine), the fact that I feel sad is an achievement. The fact that, despite this whole play being absurdist, satirical and fundamentally comedic, I still feel a pang of grief, I still feel the reverberation of this blackly comic death bounce across the room and I still hope she managed to survive is indicative of a truly excellent exhibition of acting by this cast.
That effect is an inevitable outcome of a number of things. The constant undercurrent of sycophancy that intentionally fails to mask the thick air of bitchiness amongst our strangely caricatured yet somewhat relatable characters does so much to make them feel real. That takes both a skilled cast and a director with real vision to achieve. The unerring finesse of the accents transports us across the Atlantic with ease, and the dialogue is brilliant.
Not since the days of my old all-boys school have I seen sexual innuendo so wonderfully and creatively delivered. It’s sharp and zippy, with pauses and punchlines timed to perfection. The withering and barely veiled insults thrown around the room (and indeed the audience) by Lulie (Anisha Kadri) and Vern (Lucy Luo) are as barbed and cutting as the playwrights would have wanted them to be. Aliya Ismailova’s portrayal of Ginny wouldn’t have been quite as convincing without her authentic Mancunian accent, which serves both to contrast against the brusque American twangs of the other members, but also as a reminder of just how awful many northerners sound. So said the pretend critic from Birmingham.
Would it be hyperbolic to say this was the best play I’ve seen at IC since I arrived two years ago? It’s difficult to say, but that in itself is testament to how wonderful this production was.