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Her Naked Skin review at Olivier London

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Well, if you want to write a feminist play, I suppose a piece about the suffragettes with a lesbian subplot certainly hits all the buttons, but the distractingly episodic Her Naked Skin sometimes feels too contrived to convince.

We see a group of suffragettes in and out of Holloway prison, nicely conveyed by Rob Howell’s grey clanking bars, which form a row of quasi animal cages on a raised dais on rollers, which is manually shifted during the action so often that it becomes a cliche which slows the action and shouldn’t. These are interspersed with short scenes in streets, parliament and a private house – all overshadowed by prison bars with heavy symbolism.

Then, in the second half, the emphasis shifts rather abruptly to the passionate but doomed love affair between the upper-class Celia Cain (Lesley Manville) and seamstress Eve Douglas (Jemima Rooper) with Cain’s kindly, but worried, angry, defensive and vituperative husband William (Adrian Rawlins) as the third in the love triangle.

Manville’s troubled brittleness, intense facial expression, twitching mouth and roaring rages add up to a bravura performance. She and the sultry, puffy-eyed, intense, chain-smoking Rooper are fine theatre. And Susan Engel as the grey, gritty indefatigable but humane and wise Florence Borman has some of the wittiest, most acerbic lines in the play which she delivers with impeccable timing.

Despite its flaws, the play is entertaining and it’s good to be reminded how far we have travelled in just a hundred years in terms of social justice. It’s a pity, however, that it peters out so dismally in the final five minutes that one is tempted to think that Lenkiewicz had run out of ideas and couldn’t think how to end it.

Almost unbelievably, this, the final play in the 2008 Travelex £10 ticket season, is the first work by a living female playwright to be staged at the Olivier – the irony of its subject matter is clearly not an accident.

Production Information

Olivier, London, July 31-September 24

Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Howard Davies
National Theatre
Cast includes
Lesley Manville, Jemima Rooper, Susan Engel, Adrian Rawlins, Ken Bones
Running time 2hrs 40mins

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