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The Theatreguide.London Review

Masterpieces
Finborough Theatre   Spring 2018

It's beginning to feel like open season on men. With Ella Hickson's The Writer at the Almeida and now Sarah Daniels's 1983 play at the Finborough, we are hearing the voices of women who are mad as hell and not going to put up with it any more. 

Masterpieces' subject is the many daily encounters women face with casual sexism and misogyny, from dirty jokes and pick-up lines through pornography. I have a lot of sympathy for Daniels's anger, and only wish her play was better at expressing it. 

Masterpieces opens at a nice middle-class dinner party of three couples. One woman is a teacher, another a social worker and the third, the social worker's mother, retired. 

Without ever straying from the ordinary, the chat moves on to the husbands trading jokes about raped nuns, to the discomfort of the two younger women. 

The play then follows the lives of those two women in a string of short alternating scenes (with the other actors switching roles to play minor figures as needed). 

The teacher has to deal with unruly teenagers sharing their porn magazines in class and drive the prosecution of a boy guilty of rape. The social worker tries to help a single mother reduced to part-time prostitution by getting her a job with the teacher's husband, only to have him expect sexual payment from the new employee. And despite having no sexual interest in her husband, the mother is still insulted by his preferring porn videos to her company. 

Eventually one of the three will encounter one sexual insult too many and resort to violence, only to find herself in the hands of a legal system that cannot comprehend her motive. 

I agree almost completely with Daniels's observations and appreciate her anger. But her passion gets in the way of her dramaturgy, and Masterpieces is not as effective a presentation of her position as she (and I) would want. 

It is never really clear what the older couple are doing in the play, while other characters – the woman trying to escape whoring and the mother of the boy rapist – are introduced only to be dropped just as we're beginning to care about them. 

When the general tone is understatement – the women's silent discomfort in the opening scene says everything – the play's more strident moments clash discordantly, so the play's final lines, which specifically equate dirty jokes with snuff films as evils, seem more hysterical than convincingly insightful. 

The episodic structure of the play forces frequent pauses for set and costume changes, which director Melissa Dunne is unable to keep from slowing things down and repeatedly breaking the play's forward momentum.

Olivia Darnley as the social worker and Tessie Orange-Turner, doubling as the teacher and the prostitute, are most successful in creating rounded characters out of the incomplete sketches they're given by the text. The others in the hard-working cast are given too little opportunity to make an impression. 

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Masterpieces - Finborough Theatre 2018

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