Chummy, White Bear Theatre – Review

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Jackie Straker (Megan Pemberton)

Ever since the 1940s and ’50s, ‘Noir’ narratives have always been with us in some shape or form. ‘Noir’, however, doesn’t have close visible ties with theatre as it does with cinema, but that’s about to change… Written by John Foster and directed by Alice Kornitzer, Chummy follows Jackie Straker (Megan Pemberton), an ex-police constable-cum-private investigator  who is drawn into the lives of three very different people.

At first, the play seems to be about a scenario that is, unfortunately, a common enough experience for women – intrusive contact from an unknown party. Initially dismissive of the eponymous ‘Chummy’ for trespassing on her personal space and time, the threats to other women change her mind. Offloading this disturbed individual isn’t an option as this would drive ‘Chummy’ underground, with no one to keep tabs on him. The only thing that Jackie has is his ‘trust’ in her. By availing herself night and day to listen and talk to ‘Chummy’, maybe – just maybe – he can be disuaded to not act on his impulses…

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Jessica Tomlinson as Karen Armitage / All Photos © Headshot Toby

On stage for most of the play, Pemberton’s Jackie is every inch a robust, assured woman – someone who could with ease deal with the physical dangers that private investigating and conventional policework naturally places her in. However to be critical, asides from the ‘Noir’-esque similarities, what is Chummy really about? I would say it’s about the agency of women. Certainly Chummy is more akin to Prime Suspect and Juliet Bravo with its female characters who rail against being a ‘victim’ in any shape or form, rather than the ‘hard-boiled’ male detectives of pulp fiction. Jessica Tomlinson plays Lucy Edwards –  the first woman ‘Chummy’ encounters in person –  as well as Karen Armitage, the police officer who plays Lucy in a staged crime re-enactment. While Karen is more obviously ‘stronger’ than the ‘gentle’ Lucy, the two women still end up hurt, one way or another… Sometimes strength of will and personality has no advantage if one is at the mercy of a man determined to be an aggressor…

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Calum Speed (‘Chummy’)

… And the perpetrator in question? How does his physicality and temperament compare to the ladies? ‘Chummy’ himself is played by Calum Speed and on the surface he doesn’t have the imposing presence that, say, Pemberton has on stage. However, like Jackie, ‘Chummy’ has sway with his ‘verbal prowess’, his manipulative demeanour gets it kicks from changing the course of events by his words alone. In true ‘Noir’ fashion, ‘Chummy’s’ actions are borne of an amoral centre –  not ‘evil’ in the conventional sense, but a creature of impulse who looks to Jackie for ‘guidance’. She walks the line between the ‘idealism’ of morality and the grey ambiguity that falls outside the remit of the law and society’s mores.

The set by Michael Leopold is used to good effect to show the encrouchment of Chummy in Jackie’s personal space, its windows, lighting and silhouettes emphasising the close, shadowy prioximity of ‘him’ there literally and in her head.

Throughout Chummy, the threat of violence is never far from the topic of conversation, but unlike watching film-noir or the cinema in general, seeing something approximating real violence up close on stage can be deeply disturbing. Which leads us to the question – is there anything  that shouldn’t be shown on stage, especially with regards to male on female violence? Purely by coincidence, the following evening  I saw another play that dealt with male on female aggression –  uncomfotable viewing, but within slightly different perameters. How did I come to terms with the ‘necessity’ of the scene? Again, it all boils down to female agency and subverting the ‘victim paradigm’. In the end, Chummy does ask the question, whether in the long-term undermining a woman’s word and footing because of her sex is any more ‘acceptable’ than threats of physical nature. Robbing women of their self-determination is so commonplace, yet this action hides in plain sight and is, psychologically speaking, a ‘death of a thousand cuts’. Food for thought…

© Michael Davis 2017

four-stars

Chummy runs at White Bear Theatre until 10th June 2017.

http://whitebeartheatre.co.uk/play/chummy/

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