Holly Beasley-Garrigan’s intensely personal debut solo sets out to shine light on much of British theatre’s, and by extension society’s, galloping inadequacy when it comes to discussing matters of class.
She opens the show standing naked inside a Tracy Beaker duvet. She then gets an audience member to choose an outfit for her as if she were a human version of one of those paper doll dress-up books.
The clothes we wear send signals, of course, and throughout the show she repeatedly strips off and redresses herself. Weaving together spoken word and recorded snippets of cheesy 1990s pop songs and Red Dwarf (grungy low-budget series one, if I was a betting woman), Beasley-Garrigan tells the stories of different generations of working class women, all called Opal, living on a south London housing estate. The titular sweets, which ditched their old name in the 1990s, become an apt metaphor for shed identities.
Beasley-Garrigan is an engaging performer, clearly alert to the paradox of mining her own background to make art that will be consumed by a primarily middle class audience. She states that’s that she’s doing so, in part, because it makes her work more appealing to an Arts Council keen to tick certain boxes (and, as a result, actively encourage artists to foreground their identity in their work). Being working class, she freely admits, makes her more grantable. At the same time she’s frustrated by the absence of working class narratives, particularly those of women, and the tendency to focus solely on the negatives, the fixation with the “feral underclass,” as well as the frequent failure to credit working class people as people with having any kind of creative agency.
She mines the internet for dodgy “your mum’s so poor” jokes. (People laugh, even as the jokes get uglier). She talks about the changes in the part of London in which she grew up, a process of which she acknowledges she is a part, as was her grandmother when she brought her council flat. She chips away repeatedly at her own identity and explores the cultural disconnect that comes from seeing people ironically appropriate the things you grew up with. She challenges the idea that you become middle class by dint of occupying certain spaces (like, say, hip urban arts festivals) or through modulating your voice, when it is infinitely more complicated than that.
Opal Fruits could definitely stand to be tauter in terms of its structure and the storytelling suffers from a lack of clarity. It’s a tangle of ideas, questions and frustrations. It feels like a show that started out as one thing but became something else as it was being created. But the piece becomes rawer and more personal as it unfolds; her anger is palpable, as are her clearly conflicted feelings at having to use her own life as fodder in order to ensure that the women who went before her are not erased, that their story is told.