Friday, 18 November 2016

Review The Sewing Group

The Sewing Group
By EV Crowe

The Eye Of The Needle
https://royalcourttheatre.com/

Sewing, it occurred to us during this initially intriguing play by EV Crowe, has always been an essential craft for theatre and film from the earliest days. In the end, The Sewing Group is hoisted by its own petard of a premise in being rather stitched together with visible thread but still managed at first to hook us in.

We did wonder whether we had ventured into an American farming Amish or Mennonite community when a group of women soberly dressed in dark 17th century garb sat in a candle lit room lined with planks of Scandinavian-style pale wood floor to ceiling, sewing cross stitch samplers, once beloved by the daughters of gentlefolk to demonstrate their skill at the womanly arts.

But no, the accents were mostly British throughout, although maybe there was one item of purposefully inauthentic apparel worn from the start by the trio and it was all a little too clean. Through a series of short scenes flashing by, with what sounded like a harpsichord in between, we peek into an enclosed world as lace and sampler stitching develops into a very personal form of quilting from, in the words of someone outside the realm of women's needlework, "within".

One woman (most of the characters remain unnamed, described as A,B, C, D, E,F in the script) appears to assume a modicum of control even if she is a newbie. Another, apparently, is her aunt. Amother newcomer turns out to be a widow. The sole man (and a non needle worker) appears to be a village elder and preacher in a Christian parish.

Yet despite an attempt to control communal vocabulary, anachronistic notes intrude and this little Eden of embroidery begins to entertain other plots and styles. An element of whodunnit and commercial exploitation  enters the picture, as well as a more Oriental soundtrack.

If this all sounds somewhat ideas-led, that's because it's how it comes across, despite director Stewart Laing's sharp direction injecting some neat variations of pace. Nor is this any reflection on the hard-working cast who are on one level deliberately - without wanting to give too much away - participating in a yoked together clumsy mash up fiction.

Fiona Glascott as the rookie protagonist in blonde braids brings a degree of misguided authoritarianism mixed with sincerity extracting humour from the mismatch. While Jane Hazlegrove, Sarah Niles, Alison O'Donnell, Nancy Crane and John MacKay surround her, conveying plausibly the efficiency of their human quilt.

But once the vocabulary is in place and the premise exposed, there seems little intellectual or dramatic development. There's an indication that 21st century work for an ambitious woman has been so neutered that there's a nostalgia for some aspects of a female division of labour. Yet notwithstanding a more ominous final scene where male concerns take over, the whole seems a self contained verbal bubble and therefore benign, without any jeopardy.

There's certainly a Renaissance sense of anachronism. However it veers finally from cryptic to expository and then again to the cryptic, so that we had to read the script to understand some of the gender exchange going on. And, dare one say it, it seemed rather too engrossed in an incestuously mechanical patchwork of literary, film and TV references.

Of course, the aim may be to show how human imagination, which should be flexible, can be confined to a rigid grid. Nevertheless it then struggles to find a dramatically viable form to make the issues needle the audience sufficiently. It's an amber light for a sampler of work which promises more than it finally delivers.

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