Angie le Mar’s play Forty, in which she also stars, directed by Karina Johnson at the Broadway Theatre in Catford is a hilarious take on the definitive high school reunion - a dubious possibility that hangs over all of us. It follows the story of five school friends: Sandra (Angie Le Mar) Jennifer (Carol Moses) Joyce (Catherine Hammond), Mandy (Josephine Melville), and Carole (Orlessa Atlass) who gather for Carole’s fortieth birthday for the first time in 25 years. As a corporate lawyer Carole is the most successful of the five and proves the obvious host in her Hampstead nest of bourgeois bliss.
The play explores the theme of failed aspirations as the other four women now lead lives that are entirely unremarkable - Sandra (Angie le Mar) the play’s dominant personality and tour de force has just about managed a staff job in Sainsbury’s after a teenage pregnancy wrecked all hope of higher education. Back then Jennifer may have seemed likely to pioneer a black power movement, but these days she has no flag waving career and is trapped in an abusive relationship with a white man who quickly becomes the physical manifestation of evil. Like Godot he does not appear and is only referred to, with Sandra verbally banishing him to the other world which has no air time within these four walls.
The play opens with the five women meeting at Carole’s house, they ooh and ah at her domestic ‘sortedness’ and greet each other with an overt enthusiasm while Le Mar’s dialogue cleverly betrays the deep-rooted tensions and awkwardness. As an age old feud begins to resurface between Mandy and Sandra, the plays most volatile characters, one wonders whether school reunions are anything close to a good idea. Old father time has not healed but rather entrenched the rift between the two women as the years of knock backs and disenchantment give rise to a desperate brand of bitterness. As pleasantries break down and the bickering sets in we are no longer in the sweet suburban sitting room but back in the school yard as Sandra and Mandy re enact their urban tale of woe and mutual, misdirected lust for the same guy. Mandy is and always has been the mixed race “light skin gal”, the perfect home, the “piano lessons” which make up the social embodiment of Sandra’s envy.
Here Le Mar explores black perceptions of mixed race identity- the mixed race girl with the “hair that moves” is seen to have “the best of both worlds”, she is instantly attractive to the opposite sex – the men that Sandra desires with “all that light skin working for her”. But Mandy is “confused” caught hopelessly between cultures she lashes out, her frustrated ambitions to become an actress - i.e. a blank canvas absorbing the personas of others has made her “mixed up” about her own identity. The spat climaxes to a full on fist fight between Sandra and Mandy who emotionally rip each other to shreds exposing the scars unsmoothed by lady luck. Throughout the play each the women unravel their stories and it appears all have had bumps along the road. Carole who is seemingly the most together with a proper career is pregnant with a married man’s child and the dippy Joyce who we are continually told was “ugly” in her youth is further established as the sexual reject when she comes out as gay over an impromptu game of spin the bottle. The play ends with the three powerhouses: Mandy, Carole and Sandra collapsed on the Sofa while Joyce and Jennifer dance into the last recesses of night in a nostalgic tribute to the rose-tinted days of their lost youth beating out their own rhythms to the uncontrollable marching of time.
Le Mar’s play is essentially a comedy of manners satirizing with verve and wit the life time roller coaster of five black women in London. The pace starts slowly but with the frank forwardness of Le Mar’s dialogue you gradually get sucked in and become oblivious to being in a darkened theatre watching a play thanks to the strong and naturalistic performances of the women. We did not know the women when they were fifteen but this does not matter.
As they giggle, bitch and jip the characterization is such that to the audience they are always on the knife edge between 15 and 40 mirroring the terrifying reality of growing up. At 40 our bodies may be misshapen for school uniform but our minds still contemplate the playground of life battling to make our mark before the bell rings. Le Mar has the skill of Mike Lee because in Forty she has created a soap opera for the stage where you find yourself utterly glued to the drama. There are dozens of laugh out loud moments particularly at the antics of Angie le Mar’s withering and charismatic portrayal of Sandra, reminiscent of Mike Lee’s Beverly in Abigail’s Party.
Apart from a few technical glitches with the sound in the second act and the lack of programmes containing the shows information Johnson’s production was a success. It served the audience a banquet of food for thought of which Le Mar should be proud. The scene changes were seamless and aptly accompanied by a reggae soundtrack laced with the Sex and the City theme tune perhaps as a tribute to childless, career grabbing Carole, sounding out the question of whether it really is possible for modern women to “have it all”. Half way through the first act there was an uplifting dance sequence performed by the five women in a convivial expression of unity in spite of days gone by which resonated with my inner hair brush diva.
I would definitely come to see another Le Mar production it was funny, feisty and fabulous, I give it four stars.
Angie Le Mar’s Forty was a the Broadway Theatre, Catford from 17 to 21 June
Angie Le Mar is patron of Afridiziak Theatre News