by Laura Kressly
Butter, sugar, flour – these pie crust ingredients form a comforting motif that gets Jenna through each day. There are her solace every morning as she bakes her insecurities, worries and feelings into pies that are served in a small-town American diner. The young waitress is full of hopes and dreams but her story, like the script that contains it, has another ingredient so thoroughly embedded in the narrative that it leaves such a nasty aftertaste that it overpowers everything else.
CW: abuse, abortion, assault
The patriarchy is a powerful undercurrent carrying the plot and characters, with every action and relationship within the story dictated by men. Jenna’s husband Earl is psychologically, physically and financially abusive so she looks to her two colleagues for solace. One of them, Becky, is in a loveless marriage and the other, Dawn, is desperate for a man but her geekiness (worn as a costume in the form of silly glasses and a high ponytail) has made her desperately insecure. The trio have a dynamic largely recognisable to women, but there’s an unrealistic, agreed resignation that means they brush off the abuse Jenna receives and encourages Dawn’s relationship with a man she meets online. He has an entire song about refusing to take no for an answer when after a creepy first date, Dawn tells him she doesn’t want to see him again. Some friends, eh?
Of course, she relents and they live happily ever after, because women are objects meant to be conquered and owned in this story. A similar relationship trajectory can be seen when Becky starts fucking their boss, a greasy chef who threatened to fire her on a near-daily basis until she began getting him off in the kitchen. It’s a blatant abuse of power, a dynamic also evident in Jenna and her gynaecologist having an affair. The latter is even more revolting, as Jenna repeatedly tries to end their fling but he refuses to agree, and it’s a breach in safeguarding so severe that he would be stripped of his ability to practice medicine if he were found out.
Though the women find solace in each other there’s a resignation to their supposed inability to do anything about their lives. They have no agency. The characters are written as unhappy due to their relationships with men, or in Dawn’s case, her lack of a man. This dramaturgical fact is a display of outright misogyny, indicating that women’s self-worth is determined by men. When Jenna hears about a baking contest with a prize money pot big enough to free her from Earl, she is determined to enter – yet this plotline is eventually abandoned when she is rescued by – you guessed it – a man. In this case, it’s the kindly older fellow who owns the diner where she works but his wealth and high status are the cause rather than her own autonomy.
Jenna is written as wet and wistful, and Katherine McPhee doesn’t use the power of characterisation to attempt to change this. Her Jenna is a nostalgic, earnest victim resigned to her lot in life. Her coworkers are similar in their helplessness, though a more shallow reading will no doubt paint them as strong for tolerating their abuse rather than challenging their circumstances and fighting for change.
Jenna’s pregnancy, revealed early in the show, is something that she also blames on herself. Rather than putting any accountability on her husband, a drunken night and sexy red dress – that she chose – are blamed. She doesn’t want the baby and is not celebrating her pregnancy. But she is resolved to keep it, and her friends never suggest abortion as an option. When her doctor begins to hint at its possibility, Jenna quickly brushes it off in a sentiment reflecting, ‘I don’t judge people who do that, but I’m not one of them.’ This is a blatant and infuriating display of pandering to American abortion politics and its belief that a woman’s body is not her own when she is pregnant – if it’s ever really hers at all. The word ‘abortion’ is never actually uttered.
There are some good performances – Marisha Wallace’s Becky and Laura Baldwin as Dawn are full of spirit that McPhee lacks, and the trio’s scenes are genuinely joyful despite the patriarchal constraints on their characters. The music is on the bland side – fine, but forgettable.
This New York transfer is an undoubtedly American musical – not just in style, content and form, but in its politics. Lauded for its supposed all-female creative team (there are men credited in the creative team), it demonstrates a blatant disregard for women’s bodies and reinforces right-wing ideology of a woman’s body belonging to anyone but her. This is not just a disappointment, but an embarrassment for British theatre to stage a show so regressive.
Waitress currently runs though 19 October.
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