“I want to apologise for the patriarchy” is not conventionally the most romantic way to start a proposal speech, or indeed a rom-com play. Small wonder that Steve (Tom Berish) doesn’t immediately win Kate (Sarah Daykin) over – it takes some endearing yet awkward dancing to convince her to say yes. But then again, Samantha Ellis isn’t a conventionally romantic writer; her 2014 book How To Be A Heroine rips apart those pre-conceived literary feminine icons and exposes them for who they really are. In some cases, they are true inspirations, but in others they masquerade as feminist and progressive, when really they don’t stack up to scrutiny. How To Date A Feminist, whilst not a direct follow-on from this multi-listed book of the year, holds up many of the same ideals. It’s an anti-rom com and in re-examining itself becomes a more honest, open and realistic exploration of love, devotion and compromising ideals.
Journalist Kate often falls for bad men, like editor and manager Ross, who likes to pull her hair in bed, order her around and offer up an open relationship when caught with his pants down. Steve is not a “bad man” – brought up a staunch male feminist by activist mother Morag, he bakes because he enjoys live yeast; he doesn’t pander to notions and platitudes of fake love; he asks for approval before making sexual advances. It’s not traditional romance whatsoever. Is he exactly what Kate doesn’t even realise she is looking for? Or, is their love another sham romance, a rose-tinted outlook that shatters as soon as reality overshadows fantasy?
Ellis’ writing casts aside all the trickery and fakery, the Valentine’s Day gifts and the mushy cards that create a smokescreen for romance at the expense of true love. Ultimately, this play feels like a grown-up relationship – realistic, compromising and brutal, not naïve, aspirational or fluffy. That is, until the final scenes, when Kate realises her mistake and makes the clichéd mad dash to stop the love of her life from getting away. A disappointing end to Matthew Lloyd’s otherwise shrewd and snappy direction – no scene too drawn out, losing neither focus nor audience attention, frequently punctuated with laugh out loud verbal and physical comedy.
Actors Berish and Daykin are given an acting work-out over 90 minutes, but manage to jump between characters at the drop of a hat and immediately distinguish one from the other with a raised eyebrow or an instantaneous change of accent. Berish in particular has a knack for switching between opposing personalities, from lover Steve to conservative Jewish father Joe merely by walking differently across the stage. Much of this is helped by on-stage costume changes, the old characters discarded to the floor in a pile of used clothes as the new ones are yanked from their hangers and hurriedly thrown on before John Leonard and Philip Matejtschuk’s predictable pop song interludes are concluded.
How To Date A Feminist reaches a final compromise between sickly and dry. Ellis writes a real-life, down to earth play that makes its point without taking itself too seriously. The success lies in how true to life Kate is – wishing for mad, Disney-princess love without realising the cost it comes at. We all want to be swept off our feet, but equally remain composed and in control. Ellis juxtaposes the two and queries whether they are, in fact, mutually exclusive. In the end, true love demands compromise.
Director: Matthew Lloyd
Writer: Samantha Ellis
Design: Carla Goodman; Joe Price (lighting); John Leonard & Philip Matejtschuk (sound)
Cast: Tom Berish; Sarah Daykin
Runs until 17 December 2016 – visit the Arcola Theatre website to buy tickets