In picking the inaugural text for a female led production company, Seemingly Wholesome Productions couldn’t have selected a more perfect first endeavour than Sadie Hasler’s Fran and Leni. Punchy, raw and real, Fran and Leni follows two punk rockers from their quaint British public school upbringing, through their years of near infamy, into their middle ages, as they struggle with the powerful nature of female friendship, individuality and sexuality.
As I wind my way up MC Showroom’s pokey, industrial staircase, through a grungy foyer and into the small, ramshackle theatre, I can almost believe I am heading into a punk rock gig in the 70s myself. Among a sold out Friday night crowd, I feel an electric buzz – not only are we here to support bold female theatre-makers, but it is exciting to be immersed in such individual theatre, performed in a unique venue that so appropriately suits the text.
In this charismatically bare bones theatre, technical director Charlotte Armstrong is able to impressively blend together projection elements with a dynamic lighting design that effectively elicits comparatively grimy and clean settings whilst also smoothly transitioning between isolated times, moods and scenes. In the unforgivingly transparent theatre, it is clear that Armstrong is working with only 7 lights – and to manage such versatility with so little to work with shows accomplished skill.
In contrast however, set and acting transitions prove over-complicated and unnecessary, compromising pace and tension, and allowing the actors to de-energise. Well curated projected interludes are often interrupted by the addition or removal of milk crates, bed sheets and glasses – when the lighting states so simply convey the change in setting to the audience.
Similarly, direction under Emma Gough fails to provide the rising tension to carry only two actors through 90 minutes of complex content. Whilst individual scenes are nuanced and well executed, the charismatic vulgarity inherent in the script is not fully realised, and as a result, key moments and character motivations don’t believably read. Moments of gimmick, such as Fran delivering a key monologue to a record hung on a wall, stick as key examples of where Gough’s interpretation displays a noticeable disjoint from style.
However, in any two hander cultivating a strong onstage rapport between the actors is the most important job the director has – and for this, I give Gough a standing ovation. Mikhayla Dennis (Fran) and Olivia McLeod (Leni) display a beautiful, nuanced partnership on stage, and watching them you really root for the friendship that pushes these characters throughout the text.
Dennis is magnificent as Fran – her poise, pathos and highly nuanced physical work make her character progression, despite multiple time jumps, very clear. Although she has a wonderful depth of charisma, the culmination of Fran’s trials is not realised with enough anger and heartache to believably warrant her resolutions to leave Leni and The Rips.
McLeod is handed a much more complex role in Leni, and handles difficult content, including the exploration of sexuality and sexual assault, with generous sensitivity. These moments are deeply touching and I think that she deals with them with an immense amount of grace, cultivating a beautiful level of intimacy with the audience. However, McLeod struggles to find the middle ground with Leni. Her charismatic vulgarity, whilst clearly intending to conceal her internal pain, reads as more of a gimmick; creating a disconnect between the Leni that is vulnerable, and the Leni that is hiding her vulnerabilities.
I am truly impressed by Fran and Leni. Whilst there are moments where the interpretation weakened the effect of the writing, it is bold, punchy, and unapologetically feminist. I ultimately leave excited in anticipation of Seemingly Wholesome Production’s next show, and getting another hit of this empowering female led theatre.
Seemingly Wholesome Productions’ production of Fran and Leni ran at the MC Showrooms from 26 February – 2 March 2019.