*spoilers, for sure – if you’re fussed*
Nel is SO NEARLY a brilliant show. It’s funny and inventive, endearing and a bit silly. But, during a Fringe full of feminists getting their rocks off and sticking it to the patriarchy… I sort of feel like Nel is letting the side down.
Not completely, of course. Scratchworks Theatre are an all-female collective who have made a show that depicts women in different roles, allows them to be powerful, timid, funny, smart and daft through an hour. It shows women being successful in their careers. It shows women being unsuccessful. It shows them being clumsy. It shows women without men without it being a big deal. It’s a bit like Bridget Jones without being too obnoxious.
It SO NEARLY ticks all the boxes while also being a really enjoyable show.
(There is also a danger here that I am telling people off for being BAD FEMINISTS. I am not, I really hope I am not. Scratchworks Theatre have made a fab show with good intentions, I just had some problems with it, and I hope that by writing this sort of thing I’m not tearing them down too much, and maybe just offering helpful feedback? Sorry sorry sorry if this seems a dick move.)
Nel falls into traps and tropes.
Nel is timid. By day, she is a foley artist fooling about with coconuts and juggling balls to make movie sound effects. This, alongside some folksy, warm singing, is also the tool used to provide the soundtrack to the actual show. By night, Nel likes to stroke her cat (stroking a hot water bottle to make the sound of a cat is genius, by the way) and read a book and be on her own. The other people in her life mistake this comfort in solitude for unhappiness and try to change her, and so she dutifully changes herself. To make others happy.
And herein we begin to encounter problems. Nel’s lifestyle change is accompanied by a new jacket and shoes, tying her appearance quite firmly to her standing in the world, and her sense of self completely to the comfortableness of her footwear. In a show that otherwise has successful, funny women peppered through its script, it still says women are what they wear.
It goes some way to exploring this through the pressures put on women – the pressures to meet someone, to be popular and to be successful. It’s nearly a depiction of the difficulties of femininity (but fun, because I realise that sounds dry as fuck, which this certainly isn’t), but it ties too much to Nel’s new appearance rather than any change in temperament.
And then… well, look. I’m a timid person. If you met me during Fringe you might even choose to describe me as painfully awkward (you likely didn’t meet me at Fringe because I was probs trying to avoid speaking to people sorry). There is minimal reason for this, I am just a bit timid at times.
There is no tragic accident in my past that lead to me being timid.
So, when there’s a flashback to Nel’s childhood (which is told with a brilliant puppet-type-thing that essentially involves hanging a parka backwards over someone’s bum – it’s proper great), and we see that both of her parents are killed in a tragically clichéd car accident. That’s when I got frustrated.
This creates the idea that people need a reason to be timid. It creates an excuse for Nel to be timid, meaning without an excuse it would be weird if she wanted to be on her own. Which, y’know, is sort of bollocks. In the end, of course, Nel is gifted with a piece of knitwear and realises she’s great the way she is (another unfortunate instance of self-tied-to-wardrobe but tbf it is a cracking jumper), timid or not. If this had been a show about how it is totally fine to be a bit shy despite societal pressures, then I would’ve LOVED it. I want that show – that’s the kind of show I love because it’s reaching out and holding my hand and saying ‘it’s Ok’. Nel is so nearly a celebration – she is so nearly my Bridget Jones – it just falls slightly short in a quest for backstory. But because Nel’s timidness is rooted in tragedy, it as though it is a negative side effect to be accepted rather than a cause for celebration.