Bristol Theatre News

Review: Stars at Bristol Old Vic

  • Stars – An Afrofuturist Space Odyssey is on in the Weston Studio of the Bristol Old Vic this week

An ‘old woman’s search for her lost orgasm’ sounds like a bizarre premise for a play, yet the story told on stage in front of us is one full of joy, love, self discovery, sadness and self actualisation.

It’s an Afrofuturist Space Odyssey, bringing together science, science fiction, Dogon belief, yet set on a Woolwich council estate. Stars is effectively a one-person play, following central character Mrs. It’s all set to a soundtrack performed by a live on-stage DJ.

There’s so much to love about Stars. It embraces inclusivity in a multifaceted and intersectional way. It blends together a story of Black empowerment and feminism with a queer storyline and stylised captions throughout. And here we have a piece that centres mature women as well as their pleasure and needs. It shows that it ain’t over, even after menopause and retirement – despite patriarchal inequities in healthcare.

The realistic yet sensitive handling of its council estate setting is also important representation for people who live in these places, yet rarely find their stories accurately told and certainly not in positive ways.

And if this clever piece of writing wasn’t enough, Debra Michaels’ engaging acting keeps us riveted throughout a story peeling layers of emotion, personal difficulties and at times challenging issues.

The name Mrs is a clever concept. It’s the name of her character symbolising her lost identity. The one the doctor can’t be bothered to remember in a brief ten minute consultation.

Production photographs by Ali Wright

It’s a lost identity she’s had throughout her entire marriage. A complex one with a traumatic start and themes of domestic abuse. Initially wanting to be a nun or a nurse, the life sentence of this unhappy marriage, sees Mrs feeding her deceased husband’s ashes to her goldfish Cat.

Trying to find solace in both evangelical religion and the Catholic faith, she only encounters more harm. There’s blame for fertility difficulties as well as homophobia. The laying on of hands feels like a violation in a space where there should only be support.

With her husband gone, it’s what brings her around to finally focusing on her needs instead of simply invisibly existing. The fact that she has never had an orgasm, something she desperately wants to experience, is the driving motivation.

Although the story is ultimately warm and uplifting with humour throughout, Stars doesn’t shy away from difficult issues affecting women.

There’s the microaggression of people anglicanising a Muslim child’s name. Maryam becomes Mary. She’s a central character in the play, one of many brought to life being voiced by Michaels.

Maryam wants to become a scientist and the first person from her country to become an astronaut. As the story progresses, we find that quirks of Maryam’s behavior are down to female genital mutilation. The pair are pulled to each other, not just through the dynamics of a grandparent – grandchild relationship. But to Mrs, Maryam fills her empty nest. A nest that echoes with her successful son’s music and voice but only through the radio. It’s an item she cradles at times like its her baby.

And to Maryam, Mrs’ is her safe space.

There’s themes of rape, stillbirth, abusive marriage, religious abuse, Windrush and refugees being shipped out to space. Just because we are born here doesn’t mean we are from here.

Difficult themes are balanced out with moments of joy found on Mrs’ journey to find her orgasm. There’s a queer encounter in a launderette. And we also meet the empowering intersex character of Maxi, who with her ferocious mother’s support, stands up against ingrained sexism experienced from the moment of her birth.

The Afrofuturist theme, merged with Dogon belief and the Nommo as well as Mrs’ love for sci-fi is brought to life with Candice Purwin’s wonderful animations which are present almost throughout. These appear alongside creative captioning for people who need them as a functional purpose as well as artistically backing the spoken word.

Miriam Nabarro’s set with Nao Nagai’ strip lighting design creates both a homely council flat that also feels like Mrs’ Bridge on the Enterprise. The round set slanted above the audience is the ship’s saucer section.

The constant soundtrack throughout is performed by Bradley Charles as Mrs’ successful and somewhat estranged musician DJ son. It’s a clever way of providing a creative audio backdrop to compliment the emotion on stage as well as keeping Mrs’ omnipresent radio connecting her to the son she so desperately longed for.

Does Mrs ever find her orgasm? Yes she does, typically where science and technology meets pleasure with a name reveal and rooted again in Dogon belief and Afrofuturism.

Stars is a wonderful piece of theatre that not only entertains, it gives the audience so much to think about and firmly says mature women count.

Stars is on at Bristol Old Vic until 27 May 2023

For more information or to book, visit: https://bristololdvic.org.uk/

For Tamasha Theatre: https://tamasha.org.uk/

Creatives
Written by Mojisola Adebayo
Directed by Gail Babb and S. Ama Wray
Design by Miriam Nabarro
Animation Artist: Candice Purwin
Music Direction + DJ Mixes by Debo Adebayo
Lighting Design by Nao Nagai
Video Consultant: Gillian Tan
Creative Captions by Stephen Lloyd
Co-Produced by Tamasha and the Institute of Contemporary Arts
Community Workshop Facilitators – Sue Mayo and Shanika Warren-Markland
R&D Intersex Consultant – Valentino Vecchietti
R&D FGM Consultants – Forward

Cast
Mrs – Debra Michaels
Michael Manners – Bradley Charles

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