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DUSA, FISH, STAS AND VI – Finborough Theatre, London.

Dusa, Fish, Stas and ViThe centenary year of the death of Emily Wilding Davison has sparked myriad responses, from the analytical (documentary Clare Balding’s Secrets of a Suffragette) to the sharply comical (Jessica Hynes’ sitcom Up The Women), but most of all it has invited us to take stock as a society. The Finborough’s welcome revival of Pam Gems’ 1976 feminist classic proves brilliantly pertinent to that discussion, both because her astute observations are still striking and because many of the play’s issues remain glaringly unresolved.

“We all know that there has been a backlash against feminism,” writes Gems in the foreword to her revised 1992 version. “Times move on, a new generation takes for granted freedoms wrested for them by their parents.” Eleven years later, many still have mixed feelings about ‘the F word’, although individual issues have proved effective rallying cries – the Page 3 debate, Wendy Davis, John Inverdale’s comments about Marion Bartoli – and writers like Caitlin Moran have worked hard to rebrand feminism as sensible, witty, necessary, universal.

Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi is similarly wily, balancing thought-provoking debate with heartfelt, relatable drama. The four women of the title have little in common apart from a shared London flat, and their minor skirmishes, invasions of privacy and moments of intimacy will be familiar to anyone who has shared living space. However, Gems has also cleverly constructed a neat microcosm of society, with a range of classes, ages and attitudes, which allows her to dramatise discussions like the gulf between theory and action or the balance of political and personal.

Comfortably upper-middle-class Fish is confidently zealous in her work with the movement, but on shakier ground when it comes to her relationship with fellow militant Alan. Working-class, resolutely matter-of-fact Stas, who supplements her physiotherapist income with escort work and casual shoplifting, is suspicious of Fish’s involvement, noting that swearing allegiance to a cause isn’t the same as being bound by economic circumstances; she also views working-class Alan, perhaps correctly, as part of Fish’s ‘method’ approach to aiding the disenfranchised.

However, Fish and Stas are connected as two natural carers, both helping fiercely anorexic Vi and fragile Dusa, whose husband absconded with their children while the ink was still fresh on their divorce papers. Beneath the support, there is the suggestion Dusa betrayed the cause by surrendering to family life, a decision she also questions when she realises how powerless it has left her. And yet Dusa can voice such feelings, unlike “remorselessly bright” Fish, inscrutable Stas and medicated Vi. Does that make her weaker or stronger? Gems shifts the power back and forth between them, remaining largely inscrutable herself.

An ensemble drama like this requires exceptional chemistry and a shared understanding of tone. Director Helen Eastman succeeds in making the subtle connections between the women feel organic and earned, but the tone is inconsistent: Helena Johnson (Vi) and Sophie Scott (Dusa) tend towards more stylised, sometimes strident delivery, in contrast to the understated approach of Emily Dobbs (Stas) and Olivia Poulet (Fish) – the latter proving more effective in this intimate space.

Dusa, Fish, Stas and ViHowever, all have a good feel for Gems’ stark, offbeat naturalistic dialogue, refreshingly free of sentimentality, and understand how to deliver the power of her quieter moments. It is those that stay with you afterwards: Stas calming a hysterical Dusa with professional detachment; agoraphobic Vi’s staring match with the ringing phone; Dusa examining her body in the mirror, trying to see herself as something other than ‘mother’; Fish letting her mask slip, first for just a moment, later with devastating clarity.

It’s not just the relevance of themes that makes this piece constantly absorbing (although relevant they certainly are – everything from body image, parenting and ageing to work/life balance, class differences and redefining gender roles), but the care Gems takes with presenting her characters are real people. One of the criticisms levelled at political movements is the tendency to focus on ideology rather than humanity; Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi has no such problems.

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Reviewed 12/07/13/

By Marianka Swain

9th July – 3rd August 2013
Finborough Theatre, London, SW10.

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