By Laura Kressly
Defying the odds, Nell and Cathy are comedians with successful careers behind them. But now that they’re nearing 40, they’re also on the verge of being forgotten by an industry that only values women who meet very specific criteria. When they are offered a rare gig at the London Palladium, this is a chance to resolve lingering tension between them and revive their reputations, but it could also lead to total ruination of everything they’ve fought to achieve.
As showtime gets closer, Nell and Cathy negotiate a complex, thorny history. Flipping back and forth between the present and the past, the audience is treated to a fluctuating relationship marked by camaraderie, jealousy and inequality. Though previously inseparable, Nell is now raising a son on her own and Cathy feels the pull of LA. As their differences become more prominent, their reality fractures. Are they backstage at their last gig, at a drunken after-party, or utterly alone and invisible?
There’s much more to unpack than the hour allows, but Danielle Ward’s script gives it a good go. There’s a hint of Sliding Doors to the structure, though the inclusion of addiction and mental illness add more dramaturgical subtlety than the film, which suggests neatly compartmentalised plot lines.
Anna Crilly and Margaret Cabourn-Smith introduce their characters with a hardened spikiness that makes for plenty of comedy, but as the past is revealed, so is a wider emotional landscape. What starts as a comedy transitions into a dark comedy, then something all the more tragic. Their experiences as women in stand-up are truthful and infuriating; it’s clear that they are victims of patriarchal circumstance more than they are of their own choices.
Though these women are by no means old, it’s rare to see middle-aged women and their stories taking centre stage. There’s a lot that’s been left out of this particular decades-spanning tale, but it’s one that deserves to be expanded and told again.
The Half runs through 10 February.
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