'Nostalgic, whimsical and puzzling' - Above the Mealy Mouthed Sea @ The Room Above

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Millie Haswell reviews Jemima Foxtrot’s one-woman show, which fuses poetry and music to show how seaside summers and suppressed trauma have shaped a personal evolution.

The play opens with Jemima Foxtrot- the play's co-writer and lone performer- sitting in a chair, relaying a day spent flicking through a photo album in a seaside pub with her family. Her words, intensely evocative, transport us from the small dark venue of Bristol's Room Above to the south-western coast. The clammy condensation inside the pub is vivid, and we can almost feel ‘the paperback that sticks to [her] cheek’ as she dozes with her head on the table.

At a first glance, the piece is as nostalgic, whimsical and puzzling as the photo album. As Foxtrot speaks, however, she hints at a darkness in her unnamed character’s past that is only elaborated later – one photo has had a ‘chunk cut out’ to remove a person from it.

'her words, intensely evocative, transport us from the small dark venue of Bristol's Room Above to the south-western coast'

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that to be ‘mealy-mouthed’ is ‘to speak indecisively (about); to equivocate, especially due to timidity or fear.’ Jemima Foxtrot, however, is not mealy-mouthed- she handles her words with deftness and originality. Her character’s frequent inability to shape her feelings into speech may seem ‘mealy-mouthed’ (possibly resulting in The Stage’s dubbing of the play as ‘shapeless’), but the writing is in fact highly structured and deliberate, and the ‘indecision’ or ‘timidity’ portrayed onstage is tightly choreographed by Lucy Allan’s adroit direction. The resulting performance is a nimble merging of poetry and acting which swoops from stand-up comedy to tragedy to coming-of-age bildungsroman.

The performance itself, like the title, seems quaint and twee and unsure of itself. In actuality, it is a complex riddle which makes the audience work to find meaning. Foxtrot uses no set, and her only props are the microphone and loop pedal- this starkness draws attention to and raises questions about minute details in her appearance, for instance the mysterious red swimming costume just visible beneath her white t-shirt – are we meant to think of danger, passion or Special K?

'a nimble merging of poetry and acting which swoops from stand-up comedy to tragedy to coming-of-age bildungsroman'

Music is crucial to the performance. Foxtrot’s short bursts of singing, repeated by a loop pedal, are reminiscent of half-forgotten snippets of sea shanties, sixties doo-wop and, in a delightful moment of humour, the theme tune from The Simpsons. This reflects the narrative’s tendency to jump about in the life of the protagonist, illustrating how she is still affected by memories of abuse that happened when she ‘was very little’. Of course, the word ‘abuse’ isn’t actually mentioned: Foxtrot never condescends or gives away all the answers- part of the joy of watching the performance is that the audience are trusted to piece together the story themselves.

At one point near the beginning, there are so many layers of sound that it becomes discordant and overwhelming – Foxtrot then presses a pedal, silencing the din, and says with a smirk ‘I bet you’re glad it’s not going to be like that for an hour’. There are loops in the words as well as the melodies, drawing our attention to inscrutable details: ginger biscuits and tigers are mentioned repeatedly, flashes of heat punctuating the rain-washed, ‘sort of salty’ seaside setting of the narrative. The storyline reflects the free-verse poetry of the writing in that there is no regular rhyme or metre but broken, repeated themes that surface and resurface.

'are we meant to think of danger, passion or Special K?'

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the piece is its presentation of a female survivor of child abuse, contrasting with the current ‘strong, independent woman’ trope in cinema and theatre. The character’s past trauma is only hinted at subtly; there is none of the violence or vengeance of Martin McDonagh’s bloody (but brilliant) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. She shows, however, a quiet grit, that inspires intense sympathy and emotion when she declares at the end ‘I am finally in charge of myself’, implying that she has at last found her voice and risen above the mealy-mouthed sea.

★★★★

(Featured image: Unsplash / Sasha Set.)


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