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The Theatreguide.London Review

The B*easts
Bush Theatre   February-March 2018

It is the nature of drama to turn anecdote into exemplum, to tell stories that expand beyond their specifics to offer broader insights or raise broader questions. A Danish prince's indecisiveness or a failed salesman's death become more than incident when they take on larger meanings. 

The best parts of Monica Dolan's hourlong monologue (performed by her under John Hoggarth's direction) are the larger questions she raises. But the logical line from the specific to the general is too often tenuous, and the meanings sometimes seem imposed on the material rather than drawn from it. 

Dolan's starting point is a sensational story that might have (and perhaps did) come from a tabloid newspaper's headlines – an eight-year-old girl convinced her mother to buy her double-D-sized breast implants. The story got out and generated the tabloids' signature blend of fascination and outrage, and the internet's darker responses.

Dolan plays the court-appointed psychologist in the mother's trial for child abuse, but the character and the playwright very quickly type the mother as loving-but-misguided and lose interest in her. 

Though the child is beyond the shrink's remit, she does interest her, and Dolan insightfully notes that every little girl is eager to grow up, and the only notable element here is the symbol of womanhood the girl fixated on. 

But the shrink's and the play's real interest – and you can see how far Dolan is straying from the generating anecdote – is in society's reaction to the tabloid story. 

Among her thought-provoking observations is that the story is troubling because it brings together two society-generated fantasies, the innocent child and the fetishised female body, and the world just can't handle the confusing and guilt-inducing combination. 

(Another side observation is that today's social climate is such that a pre-teen boy wanting gender-reassignment surgery would be more easily accepted.) 

Dolan's tentative explorations of the paradoxes and confusions lying treacherously within contemporary attitudes toward sexuality and self-definition are intriguing. But to get to them her character's stream-of-consciousness has to drift too far from the girl and the mother for them to seem part of the same play. 

The playwright-performer and her director don't help sustain the tenuous connection when they give the speaker a distracting narrative style. For the first third of the monologue the character talks around the topic, not out of any evident fear of facing it, but just because it's meant to be a humanising and endearing quirk. 

As Dolan has the woman admit, she keeps talking as if we already knew what she was talking about and we were just picking up a conversation that had already established the facts. The effect is really a lot more annoying than cute, and seriously handicaps any rapport or trust between audience and speaker. 

In a similar way, the purely personal reason for the character's interest in this story of breasts as self-definers, telegraphed long in advance, is coyly withheld until it loses too much of its potential dramatic power. 

Even the relevance of the title's forced pun seems strained. There are villains in Dolan's story, but they are not at its centre or what the play is really about. 

And there's the problem. What The B*easts is about, in the sense of what its story is, and what it is about, in the sense of the issues it raises, are both interesting. But they never quite connect.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The B*easts - Bush Theatre 2018

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