Professor Wu's Rulebook

Theatre review: ‘Sexy Lamp’, by Katie Arnstein

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The ‘Sexy Lamp Test’: if a female character could be replaced by an item of otherwise alluring lighting without changing the story, it has failed the Sexy Lamp Test. Photography by Simon Jefferis.

Funny, conversational, moving and devastatingly honest, ‘Sexy Lamp’ is the new story and performance from Katie Arnstein, who previously won awards for her debut show Bicycles and Fish.

The show starts as arguably too few shows do, with the solo performer Arnstein wearing a lampshade on her head, listening to Seth McFarlane’s sexist song ‘We Saw Your Boobs’ (which McFarlane performed at the 2013 Oscars). This is a nod to Kelly Sue DeConnick’s ‘Sexy Lamp Test’, from which the show takes its name, and which determines if a female character is relevant to the plot of an artistic work or merely decoration. If a female role could be replaced by an item of otherwise alluring lighting without changing the story, it has failed the Sexy Lamp Test.

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Katie Arnstein delivers a 5-star performance in a 5-star show. Photography by Simon Jefferis.

Complete with charming, informal conversation, pitch-perfect impressions, and (very good) ukulele songs, Arnstein delivers a show that is thoroughly inspired by – and part of – the ongoing #MeToo movement. ‘Sexy Lamp’ charts her journey from a seven-year-old inspired by Judy Garland’s Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, to a woman inspired by a desire to put right the fact that Garland was put on addictive, appetite suppressing drugs by Oz’s producers, while being paid less than all the other principal actors except Toto the Dog.

The writing is sharp and fresh, and the work as a whole is inquisitive, analytical, contemplative; significant. It’s also deeply personal, giving it the sense of a performative memoir and in the end it leaves you feeling as though you’ve spent a long while in the intimate company of a stranger, who nonetheless somehow feels achingly familiar.

Indeed, in her personal account of her story working in the industry she clearly loves, Arnstein presents us with scenes and experiences that far too many women will be able to recognise as having seen or experienced themselves.

This isn’t ever about sharing sympathy (despite the abundance of empathy on display here). Rather, this play is in many ways a rebellion against what has come before and a rallying cry against the old, sexist, world-order. There are revelations against certain companies that will make your jaw drop (not least because of the matter-of-fact tone of delivery that juxtaposes the enormity of the content you’re hearing). There are lessons to be learned in standing up against your useless agent who never gets you a gig, and the empowerment that comes from realising you are able to use the word “no”. Perhaps most poignantly, there is a beautiful example of the power of solidarity that exists between people as the show reaches its conclusion – that provides a case study in how to stop perverts and harassers in their tracks, and lifts the whole scale of the performance to an extremely moving end.

You might have come for the lamps; but you’ll stay for the luminescence of the performance, and you’ll come away enlightened.

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