The Woman and The Car

12 Dec

This is the first outing for indie company Ship’s Cat and they’ve chosen an intriguing piece.

Written by Mark Langham, the play presents Dorothy Levitt, a British racing car driver, and it being the early 1900’s and her being a woman, a feminist icon.

Levitt raced cars, motor boats and flew planes – all at a time when women were denied the vote, and even the right to open a bank account.  Langham doesn’t attempt a detailed history of Levitt’s extraordinary life, but focuses on a few days in 1909 in which she commits to write The Woman and the Car, a guidebook for female motorists. The book’s subtitle was A Chatty Little Hand Book for Women Who Motor or Want to Motor and this very Edwardian phrasing hints at the source of Langham’s unusual choice of tone. This is not a stuffy, pedantic bio-play but a type of drawing room farce. It’s littered with brilliant one-liners and terrific comic set ups and, under the direction of Cam Turnbull, the whole thing feels like a parody of those dreadful one room dramas of the early 20th century (which would be rightfully forgotten if they weren’t resurrected with painful regularity by amateur theatre.) The cast adopt the declarative tone and RP accent that dominate such pieces and play the humour brilliantly.

Lib Campbell is Dorothy Levitt, capturing her independent spirit, her fierce wit, and growing sense of desperation. One of the fascinations of the production is Campbell’s immensely watchable portrayal of Levitt’s character arc, from wise cracking swagger to debilitating misery.

Alexander Spinks is Selwyn Edge, Levitt’s married lover and employee of Napier, the company that provided her car. Selwyn functions in the piece as the archetypal obtuse male. He wants all he can get from Dorothy, both financially and physically, but he can’t make sense of her dissatisfaction with the patriarchy. One of my favourite lines is when Selwyn insists on telling Dorothy what it is that she is feeling: “being a woman – that seems to annoy you greatly”. His lack of understanding and empathy are painfully laughable.

Zoe Crawford is Isabel Savor, a female adventurer absolutely besotted with Dorothy. Though wanting to present as a confidant daredevil, Isabel is plagued by insecurities. She is unfulfilled by the limiting gender roles of her time, but struggles to forge a path of her own. She once proudly “shot a tiger in the face”, but her growing discomfort with hunting’s brutality indicates that her adoption of hyper-masculine behaviour was purely reactionary. A shot at genuine authenticity is possible when she admits her sexual feelings to Dorothy, but when they’re not rejected, Isabel has little idea how to act upon them. Crawford plays both the jokes and the pathos wonderfully.

Now, back to where I started: the unusual tone. Dorothy Levitt didn’t race her way joyously to old age; she’s presented as suffering a growing substance abuse problem, driven by both injuries sustained in competition and her bitter frustration at injustice. So why all the jokes? Some of them are, after all, deliberately rather silly. Don’t they just get in the way of a serious historical story?

Well, no. They capture something of the era, with its droll Edwardian humour. They capture something of Levitt’s exuberance. And, finally, they call attention to the fact that this (theatre, society) is a constructed world. (Man-made, if you like.) A story of patriarchal injustice is told in a way that highlights the artificiality of social structures, and so reminds us that what is made can be remade.

I look forward to seeing more from Ship’s Cat Theatre Co.

Paul Gilchrist

The Woman and The Car by Mark Langham

107 Projects until 18 Dec

Image by Clare Hawley

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