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Review - What (Is) a Woman

Arcola Theatre

Playing until 4th May 2024

Photo credit: Kate Scott

Review {Ad-PR Gifted}

Andrée Bernard, a seasoned West End performer and TV actress, makes her London debut as a writer and composer with her new solo musical play, What (is) a Woman. Across two acts, we’re brought into both the inner and external worlds of Bernard’s unnamed protagonist. The show isn’t described as autobiographical, but with the character being an actress who navigates ageing in the fickle world of showbiz, Bernard might dipped into the pool of her own experiences when crafting this show.


Mainly spoken over an ongoing score with nine original songs peppered throughout, What (is) a Woman spans four decades of the protagonist’s life as she navigates life, passions, and (predominantly) love. Each decade is defined by a series of men whose romantic partnerships play a considerable role in the character’s sense of self. There’s the teenage sweetheart, the ‘Handsome, Young Director’, a straight-laced dentist, and the ongoing presence of a ‘Tall American’, an elusive man who she has wild sex with but can never quite connect with romantically.


In addition to playing the protagonist, Bernard also portrays all of these men. The way she switches between characters is superb, giving each man a unique voice, posture, and gait to make them stand out from the rest.


Alongside her characterisation skills, Bernard delivers strong musical performances as she glides and jaunts across the stage with impeccable preciseness, supported by Lucie Pankhurst’s classically-influenced choreography. But, while there are some stand-out musical moments, namely the cheeky ‘Reservation for One’, many of the songs stray too far on the side of schmaltz, leaving moments which should feel confessional and raw as little more than a scattering of clichés.


Daniel Looseley’s musical direction is wonderful, and it’s great to see Looseley and bass player Jess Martin clearly on display as part of the staging. The set is bare, which works well in tandem with Bernard’s commanding stage presence, while Zoé Ritchie’s lighting design delicately punctuates the drama throughout.


The first act is the most dynamic plot-wise, while the second half becomes somewhat repetitive and rather frustrating as we see the self-professed “romanceaholic” become utterly fixated on finding love to her own detriment.


For a show set over four decades, there doesn’t actually seem to be a huge amount of character progression in that time besides a growing sense of cynicism. While the character was still compelling, it became harder to sympathise with her — generating sympathy appears to be the desired intention — as she continually self-sabotages in the name of finding her soulmate.


It feels as though What (is) a Woman ought to conclude with the realisation that the protagonist could be content on her own, but instead, we watch her become progressively embittered and frustrated — with minimal reflection on her own unhealthy attitudes towards romance.


The ending in particular felt abrupt. It was almost as though the character was on the cusp of a breakthrough that would have offered a satisfying conclusion to the story, but it never quite materialised.


What (is) a Woman is advertised as a “blistering” exploration of what it means to be a woman today, and on this front it unfortunately doesn’t deliver. But Bernard’s engaging performance and Michael Strassen’s intriguing direction are enough to make it an entertaining and unique show, even if its message doesn’t live up to the lofty promises of its promotion — or the weight of its star’s talents.


Writen, composed and performed by Andrée Bernard

Directed by Michael Strassen

Musical Direction by Daniel Looseley

Choreography by Lucie Pankhurst

Lighting Design by Zoé Ritchie

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