Six serpents and a Tarantula at the Hen and Chickens (Camden Fringe)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

‘Six Serpents and a Tarantula’ is a new play written and directed by Maryanna Clarke and presented by Old School Players. It is a Western, set in 1888 and told from a female perspective. On arrival we are greeted by four of the cast, all female and in character as brothel workers. A fifth woman is dressed as a male one-eyed gunslinger, sat at a saloon style table struggling to write, deep in thought, ignoring the arriving audience. But our struggling writer is going to have help as these women want to show him how to tell the story of the lady in blue their way.

Making a point about the fact that Westerns are almost exclusively written by men, ‘Six Serpents and a Tarantula’ looks to provide a female perspective, with a tale of love, abandonment, jealousy, obsession, domestic violence and murder. A spinning gun helps decide who plays which part, adding to the sense of communal ownership these women have for the story they are sharing. The sense that they’ve all been at the mercy of volatile men, with limited autonomy over their bodies or lives.

Clarke’s story is rich with characterisation and plot . Told in a non-linear fashion, it can be unnecessarily challenging to follow in places. Sometimes the physical ticks used to indicate a shift in time confuse more than they help, particularly where we have small time jumps or asides. I enjoy a spot of fourth wall breaking foreshadowing as much as the next woman, and don’t need it spelt out to me that this is not part of the central action of the story.

While I understand the choice to cast live in show, I do wonder if that is done at the expense of our actors truly getting to know and inhabit their characters. We are always experiencing the story at a distance, so it is more challenging to emotionally connect with what is happening to them. As a result in a scene where one character is fighting not to have to abort her unborn child, the emotional power of the moment is diluted. Making this a communally owned piece, with a rotating cast, does come at the cost of the individual stories fully resonating.

Having said that our intrepid cast of five: Eliza Jayne Gilroy, Stella von Koskull, Jessica Mattarelli, Lucy Millett and Imogen Read throw themselves into their randomly selected roles with the energy and commitment needed to help carry this complex piece of storytelling. They are definitely up for the challenge, and they make for engaging viewing. I can’t help thinking they could have done even more with less.

‘Six Serpents and a Tarantula’ is touring with dates in Dorset and London at the end of August (see image above for details). It is an ambitious show, and while it doesn’t fully deliver on that ambition, it does make for an entertaining evening of theatre.

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