‘Come on love, cheer up, it might never happen’.
Generations of women have endured this sort of sexist nonsense from stupid men who are far more likely to make then gag but this commonplace abuse inspired Andrea Heaton and Adam Z. Robinson to write the darkly comic Smile Club.
This new play in partnership with Leeds based Red Ladder Theatre Company is now on tour, but the concept of Smile Club created in a misogynistic dystopia where belittling and silencing women is now state sanctioned was based on a real life incident a friend mentioned to Andrea.
“A man at a train barrier who wouldn’t let her though and said she should give him a smile before she went through,” recalls Andrea as she takes a break from rehearsals ordering a pakora wrap at Manjit’s Kitchen in Leeds Kirkgate Market. “That was a little seed, and I’d read Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates, and at that point I had so much stuff in here that I thought where is the story here that articulates all those ideas.
“Smile Club has been set up first by the government, and then been privatised, which has certain consequences. The institution has been set up to contain women who are protesting, complaining or arguing that things should be weighted in their favour, so there has been an institutional pushback against that.”
The intense rehearsals working with Red Ladder’s Artistic Director Rod Dixon has thrown up some new ideas and harsh realities as they explore the motivations of Lisa who is an inmate of Smile Club. “One of the things we’ve found is this universe is really close to ours. We think it’s only a few years down the line, so we’re not taking about a world with hoverboards. There is are a lot of recognisable touchstones but just at at a slightly skewered angle.
“We’re told the whole story with the voice of Lisa and something terrible has happened to her, so she’s been sent to a Smile Club. Through Lisa’s telling of that story she also invokes the other characters who are her fellow inmates, and also the people who are running that programme. One person in particular, a woman called Paula, and we see the unfolding relationship between Lisa and Paula, and the other women, through to her past through this experience.”
As well as writing it Heaton is performing Smile Club as a one woman show playing Lisa and some of the key players in her life. It’s also a welcome return to performing after some time spent writing and producing.
“There are lots of gear changes and one of the things that been really exciting is working out what our convention is,” muses Andreas as she waits for her order to be called in the bustling market hall. “If we are able to establish a really clear convention about how Lisa presents those characters to us then audiences will go with it. We’ve been working quite hard to make sure it translates off the page into a story that will pull us along. It’s really thrilling to play four characters in total.”
In many ways this is sadly perfect timing for this work to go out tour given women are fighting back through Me Too, the huge TV success of The Handmaid’s Tale set in a similar dystopian world and the Weinstein verdict that put powerful predators on notice they will be exposed .“Me Too has been seismic in all sorts of different ways, and there is something about it that feels like step change. There’s potentially some hope in there as well as sometimes exposing things is quite horrible to look at, but the act of doing that is hopeful.
“I want it to be a conversation which is one of the great things about Me Too as it started a conversation, and that people have felt they are in a position to contribute to that. I feel there are points in the show that aren’t the same as when we started, so I don’t think it is presenting answers. I think what it is doing is saying let’s have a conversation and let’s carry on that conversation.”
As well as tapping into Dixon’s huge experience directing left of centre works that speak truth to power, Heaton is looking forward to taking Smile Club out of traditional theatre spaces into pubs and clubs that make up the Red Ladder Local network. “We are talking the conversation to people who don’t necessarily walk into those theatre buildings. There is always a question as a theatre maker who am I making this for? If it’s just for me as a writer that confirms my own beliefs than what is the point of that?”
Theatre Royal Wakefield, Wakefield, Sun 8th March, 7pm.
Cast, Doncaster, Wed 11th March, 7.15pm.
Harrogate Theatre, Harrogate, Thu 12th – 13th March, 7.45pm.
Theatre Deli, Sheffield, Sat 14th March, 7.45pm. In association with Shefest 2020.
The Dukes, Lancaster, Tue 17th March, 7.30pm.
Hunslet RLFC, South Leeds Stadium, Wed 18th March, 7.30pm.
Arts Centre Washington, Sunderland, Thu 19th March, 7.30pm.
Square Chapel Arts Centre, Halifax, Fri 20th March, 8pm.
Rockingham Centre, Hoyland, Barnsley, Sat 21st March, 7.30pm.
Hawksworth Wood Village Hall, Leeds, Tue 24th March.
Gipton WMC, Leeds, Wed 25th March, 7.30pm.
Shaw Lane Sports Club, Barnsley, Thu 26th March, 7.30pm.
Queen’s Mill, Castleford, Fri 27th March.
St John’s Parish Hall, Barnsley, Sat 28th March.
Grove Hall, Pontefract, Sun 29th March.
Hull Truck Theatre, Hull, Tue 31st March, 8pm.
Lincoln Drill Hall, Lincoln, Wed 1st April, 7.30pm.
Torch Theatre, Pembrokeshire, Thu 2nd April, 7.30pm.
Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol, Fri 3rd – 4th April, 8pm.
The Cluntergate Centre, Horbury, Wakefield, Sun 5th April.
Booking details are all available on www.redladder.co.uk