Stand Up To Sexism and No More Page 3: How one night of comedy proved sexism is still no laughing matter

Review: A hilarious comedy evening event featuring male and female comedians, organised by some of the loudest and most-relevant voices in feminism today ‒ plus, Sabrina Mahfouz and one of the most powerful anti-sexism poems I’ve ever been lucky enough to hear

No More Page 3 Stand up to sexism

Stand Up To Sexism: a taste of the line-up

Women in comedy. Three words always guaranteed to provoke at best defensive naming sessions of women that yes, actually, we do find funny; at worst a tired editorial on whether men are just better at laugh-making than women – and worse still, a general agreement from your immediate companions that women just don’t cut it compared to the men.

By way of example, allow me to wheel out that seemingly-ancient yet still-valid observation about the numbers of women on panel shows; as much as I love QI, Mock The Week et al, it has to be said, again and again, that female appearances, women-majority or, heaven, women-only line-ups seem as rare as a bag of purple Skittles (sigh).

But tonight, laughter rang to the rooftops of the beautiful Harold Pinter Theatre as woman after woman, mixed in with the odd brave bloke, prompted peals of amusement (as well as the odd overwhelmed tear) in the name of the online campaign feminist powerhouses that are Everyday Sexism and No More Page 3.

The Stand Up To Sexism event, which I found out about via social media (where else?!), was as hilarious as it promised ‒ presenting a solid line up of male and female comedians and poets, most of whom I’d never before heard of (save the wonderful compere Lucy Porter, whose repartee sparkled with biting yet reassuring joy), exploring everything from Page 3 models to the perils of Bikram yoga, via yummy mummies and how not to hate your body (yay).

Special mention must go to the absolutely glorious Tiffany Stevenson, who I’d never heard of before this evening but whose insights into body image, iPad apps for cats and aging was easily one of the comedic highlights of the night (basically guys, when you think flesh-coloured popsocks are a great idea and biscuits fall out of your bra when you take it off, which in no way stops you from eating them, it’s all over. Frankly though, I can think of worse ways to go, and when it comes to biscuits, I’m basically halfway there already).

John-Luke Roberts, another comedian I hadn’t heard of before (I know, sorry!), almost stole the show with his ‘burlesque’ act involving paper slogans taped to various layers of clothing, including such gems as ‘Stop asking if women are funny: Some are, some aren’t’ and ‘100% of rape cases are the fault of the rapist’ (since I have the memory of a distracted goldfish, these are paraphrased, but I hope you get the gist!). Kudos also go to the pleasingly dishevelled Joel Dommett, who should be applauded not only for being the first bloke on stage at a feminist gig, but also for his ability to hold a yoga position without dropping the microphone at the same time as talking enigmatically, inoffensively and bloody hilariously about the balancing power of an escaped cock (seriously). Genius.

The deadpan and sharp-mouthed Suzi Ruffell was also truly incomparable, while Kate Smurthwaite was both erudite and uncomfortably accurate in her side-splitting take-down of the Daily Mail’s consistently-disappointing, face-palmingly awful columnists, as well as one local newspaper’s charmingly barmy letters page on the subject of women and shoes.

Viv Groskop’s feminist-Wollstonecraft-Emily Davidson-referencing rap (along with her white-streaked hair and amazingly sparkly dress that said, in her own words, “Cruella De Vil from the neck up, Liza Minnelli, the Wilderness Years, from the neck down”) also gets a mention for sheer, bizarre, entertainment value.

Women and men alike whooped and clapped from a crowd that was as intelligent as it was friendly. Jokes about grammar, middle-class shopping and Muswell Hill revealed the audience’s predictably London, largely middle-class, lefty credentials, making my mind flit slightly wincingly over to the recent Twitter debate on intersectionality (for want of a better word, the discussion over the idea that feminism today appeals only to a certain class/kind of woman, and that feminism cannot/should not be considered in isolation to other forms of oppression) and yet I was in no doubt that here were my people – a set of fantastic individuals who share my sense of humour, my values, my notions that these issues and problems are still relevant and still not won. A quick scan of my Twitter afterwards revealed that loads of the feminists, journalists and bloggers who I admire were also in the audience, such as @VagendaMagazine  and @WeekWoman. It really was like my inspiring Twitter timeline made life, and holy shit, I loved it.

One small caveat, which I almost hate myself for writing, and yet, feel I must admit in order to give a full picture of the night: I am always left unbelievably frustrated by the fact that, despite all these wonderful people standing up against sexism, proclaiming the need to break free of fucked-up societal norms about what is and isn’t beautiful or clever, and all these women and men, of all shapes and sizes, shining on-stage with confidence and wit, I still leave the theatre irked by the usual self-hating bollocks that my thighs are too fat, my skin is too blemished, my stomach is more barrel than beautiful and my style is more drab than diva.

It’s pretty appalling that I simultaneously and sincerely believe these things about myself at the same time as knowing that there’s SO MUCH MORE TO LIFE. I guess old habits die hard, and when your culture has been pumping harmful images and messages at you as long as you can remember, it takes more than one night of feminist comedy to exorcise that panoply of body-image demons. But the fact that these people exist, that they are trying, and that they are symbolic of a wave of others, gives me hope and strength that I’m not alone. And that in itself is empowering.

To see people throwing such brilliant and funny lampoons into the issues that are so often shunned, attacked or marginalised as ‘wimmin complaining’ by utter, useless twatmonkeys who refuse to acknowledge that despite feminism having achieved lots already, there’s still more to do, was absolutely fantastic, and frankly one of the best ways I’ve found to spend a Sunday night (well, until the next series of Downton comes on, in any case).

But it wasn’t all fun. While I must acknowledge the comedians who entertained for hours on end, and the fantastic women who organised the whole thing (Lucy-Anne Holmes from No More Page 3 and the impassioned Laura Bates from Everyday Sexism, who have done so much to bring these discussions into the mainstream where they so dearly belong), the most powerful and poignant bit of the night has to be the poem by Sabrina Mahfouz (and here on Twitter), who nearly caused a riot with her incredible beat poem on why Page 3 exists.

I truly hope she won’t mind that I recorded it for future reference, and have transcribed the whole thing here (unbeknownst to me at the time, it can also be found here, on her website, which also reveals her to be a seriously big deal – I love how true it is that you really do learn something new every day). It was powerful, meaningful, and bloody well written, and, as I replayed it over and over, caused me to walk a little taller on my trip back home (which for me, standing all of five foot tall, is a pretty significant achievement).

Good on you Sabrina, and good on you all the comedians and behind-the-scenes wranglers. I hope you succeed. Here’s to No More Page 3, and all it represents. Gloriously, fabulously, hilariously good on you.

Sign the No More Page 3 petition here

Everyday Sexism

No More Page 3

Stand Up to Sexism

Video and transcription – entirely, 100% copyright of the absolutely fantastic Sabrina Mahfouz, website here.

No More Page 3 Campaign Poem

It’s like walking home late from raving

Hearing the drunks shuffle, scuffing the paving

Behind you, like just to remind you, that by the way,

You’re a girl

And that means danger towards your world,

And so shouldn’t you be curled up safe in bed with crumbly biscuits and a magazine

Filling your pretty head with thoughts of who you’d rather be

Instead? Cos I read

That 92% of girls under 22 hate their bodies, and yet,

63% of them want to be

Not Hilary, not JK, not MP, not Professor, Doctor, Lawyer, not mother, or even Beyoncé,

But a glamour model. A model of glamour. G-g-g-g-glamour.

I stammer over the word, ‘cause when I first heard it back in the day, I was like

Yeah, I’ll take some of that

You can breathe your hot breath on to my neck

As between my breasts beaded with sweat in preparation

For being an Internet sensation

But I had a mad moment of realisation

At the meaning of forever and I didn’t do it

The modelling thing

The how deep can you sink in thing

The pink, brown, black, flesh, flash for cash thing

I didn’t – but I nearly did

Cos I was so caught up in the hype of papers, magazines, film, TV,

That even though I’d gone to grammar school not glamour school

And I was at university

It seemed to me that the only way that I could see to the top

Was through desirability

‘Cause that’s what I saw in the papers, magazines, films and on TV

Now fast-forward ten years later

And I hear of this thing

No More Page 3

And it makes me so happy

That finally

Eight-four years after winning the right to vote through protest and death, yes

Papers might actually

Start to fill pages

With the sagest

Almost outrageous

Words of powerful women, everyday women, whose faces don’t need to be pleasing

And stomachs don’t need to be thin and boobs don’t need to be bared

So a four-year-old son can see the family paper when painting at the dinner table

And he doesn’t grow up to think

All girls are fair game

And little daughters grow up to know that they will be valued for their brain

So the training is worth it

There’s no more excuses

We’ve got to stop it, the lot of it

On top of this, I’d just like to add

That I am all for free speech and keeping liberties

But these pictures are taking liberties

And they’re not speaking, except the word ‘pornography’

So do what you wanna do on your type-the-pincode-TV, but

NEWSpapers are made of paper that’s supposed to print the news

And boobs are not news so excuse me if I do more than just

Not buy it

I’ll scream it’s not right as it shines an airbrushed light

On the fact that this society sees women as bodies

That are commodities

But only at their peak of conceivability

After which please go away and don’t say anything

Not that you ever had anything to say anyway

Strange, you may say, that I’m a woman saying that

Given a mic and a stage from which to say it

But trust me

For every girl behind a mic

There’s ten thousand behind a phone screen

Keen to take pictures to send to men who’ve told them that

They can live the dream of Page 3

And maybe

They will

And maybe that is really their dream they want to fulfill

But if so then that’s a crying shame

‘Cause they’ll never get to know who they really could have been

So, to help let that 65% of under 22s find a different dream

Please sign the petition

No More Page 3

Sign the No More Page 3 petition here

Everyday Sexism

No More Page 3

Stand Up to Sexism

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Review: Kate Rusby in Regent’s Park

Despite a lacklustre start and dismal weather, folk singer Kate Rusby’s haunting melodies provided the perfect end to a slow and wintry Sunday

Rainy audience at Kate Rusby

Summer shower multi-tasking: toe-tapping and holding an umbrella simultaneously (Photo: Alice Moran)

Wandering into the surroundings of the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park feels a little like being ushered in to a children’s forest-closeted den, hidden away behind trees and velvet greenery into a new, bohemian world where fairies (or at least, fairy-lights) linger and pixies abound. Despite such an exciting setting, which felt at first to be a pleasing contrast to the manicured lawns of the surrounding Regent’s Park, the atmosphere of extremely popular (and rightly so) folk singer Kate Rusby’s show initially struggled to get going. Although the first support act (no idea who they were, but their arrestingly manic, folky set provided a rousing if somewhat perplexing introduction to the evening) gave it their best efforts, the fairly middle-class, seemingly largely middle-aged audience huddled on damp seats as a kind of muted hush descended, a spattering of umbrellas (not strictly allowed) and a peppering of plastic ponchos bracing themselves against the wind and rain as the not-so-witty repartee of the second supporting act (formed, it transpired, of three members of Kate Rusby’s band), failed to elicit much response.

Kate Rusby support act, including Damian O'Kane

The support act: fantastic music, not so great stage presence...! (Photo: Alice Moran)

Rusby’s husband and father of their child Daisy, Damien O’Kane, the lead singer in the second band, is either a dryly comic genius, or a miserable old git. My indecision over which epithet to award to the stilted attempts at stage banter rather clouded what could have been a truly enjoyable start to the performance, although the music was energetic and playful, and the banjos, guitars and a bodhran, the typical Irish drum, saw me tapping my toes like a loon as the desperate desire to get up and dance a jig washed over me like the warm satisfaction that comes from a nice long Guinness. So far, so good.

Doris the dog

But really, and such is, lamentably, the lot of support acts, I sensed the evening wasn’t really going to get started until Kate Rusby herself graced the stage, and after what seemed like a good long while, there she was, walking unassumingly towards the front, drink and cardigan in hand, and looking all the world as if she was just doing a gig for some old, but great, friends in her local bar. She was warm, outgoing, professional and actually very funny, the syrupy Yorkshire vowels I recognised from her songs bemoaning the weather and thanking everyone for braving it with her. Halfway through she shrugged on a very snuggly-looking cardigan, spoke about her young daughter’s antics with some felt tip pens and the household dog Doris, apologised for having a bit of a cough, and, also, wonderfully, wrapped her incredible voice around the utterly absorbing, moving melodies for which she is famous, caressing the wind-and-rain-buffeted audience into a captivated reverie.

Kate Rusby

Kate Rusby, a wonderful performer (Photo: Alice Moran)

Athough I was a bit miffed that I didn’t recognise most of what she sang (as I haven’t much listened to her new album yet), I toe-tapped, swayed, smiled and sung along as if in a dream, emerging completely relaxed and never wanting it to end. Kate Rusby’s beautifully lilting repertoire is usually the last thing I hear before I go to sleep; an array of nearly all of her studio albums playing softly in the background until my computer turns itself off, so I felt a little sheepish if not very sleepy when Kate announced that this was her final song, followed with a weepy encore of the gorgeous ‘Fare Thee Well’. What about ‘You Belong To Me?’, I thought, ‘The Streams of Nancy’, ‘John Barbury’, ‘Andrew Lammie’, ‘High on a Hill’; the harmonies that nearly move me to tears with their beauty before carrying me off to sleep?

Top-notch guitar

I shouldn’t have been surprised – the nature of folk music;  the ease with which artists cover other artists’ work; lend their particular style to the old traditional tunes, and the sheer size of her repertoire, means that Kate would never have had time to cover all my old favourites.  I did happily perk up to sing along to Awkward Annie (the title track from my most-loved album) and recognised a couple of others, but the other songs passed by in a haze of exquisite melodies, lively lyrics and top-notch guitar playing. The very handsome double bass provided the anchor for the light over-melodies, while the plucks from the banjo reminded everyone that this was home-grown, hearty folk music, sprung from and infused with the history and soul of the land, whether Scottish, Irish, English or Welsh.

Despite the cold, despite the weather, despite her still-miserable looking but very sweet husband reminding the audience that she was fighting a cold, Kate’s vocals were flawless, and sounded almost exactly the same as the pure, resounding arrangements on her released recordings. There was no rousing standing ovation, no huge waves of cheering, no ear-splitting whoops, but a quick scan around the audience during a song picked up hundreds of knees and toes tapping in unison, and the polite but increasingly lengthy applause gathered in fervour as the show went on. After all, this was a folk concert in a woody enclave of central London in the dying hours of a rainy afternoon, not a rock show in a heavily amplified arena on a Saturday night. Admittedly, I would have liked more whooping, and more than once wished I was nearer the front (despite having a great view from where I was), so that I could make my appreciation heard in an attempt to rouse the sometimes-lacklustre audience response and let the band know that we did actually appreciate their being there.

Kate Rusby

This photo is a bit blurred but I actually love how it captures the light and the movement of the band (Photo: Alice Moran)

Bless them, they were trying so hard and Kate was clearly having a ball, but the wintery weather and outside aspect meant much of the crowd’s appreciation seemed to get lost in the wind – and I could understand O’Kane’s characteristic deadpan response when he informed us that the audience of their recent gig in Belfast were much more vocal. This was, however, one of several pleasingly tongue-in-cheek digs at Kate – O’Kane is from Coleraine in Northern Ireland, while Rusby demonstrably hails from Barnsley, so this apparently mocking comment snuck in under the radar as Kate responded with heartfelt humour and carried on, a huge smile on her face as she closed her eyes to the beauty of the next song.

All in all, I’ve been more excited, I’ve been more loud, I’ve been more enthused, but I nevertheless enjoyed myself immensely. The show’s atmosphere lightly improved as the sun went down, and any heavy rain thankfully held off to be replaced by a smattering of manageable drizzle. Walking out the of the show, past all the twinkling fairy-lights still twisted into the bushes next to a lawn of picnic tables, I couldn’t help but think I would have loved the show more if it had taken place in a bar or, fittingly, on a lawn, rather than in the faux-formal, slightly ‘make-believe’ and not-altogether folk-appropriate setting of a theatre, even an outside one, but I nevertheless hummed all the way home suffused with a sense of peace and wonder. Despite the weather, the slightly disappointing enthusiasm levels from the audience and the slow start, in the end my only complaint was that Kate Rusby, one of my favourite artists, with a voice of molten gold, couldn’t have sung for longer.

‘Fare Thee Well’ – Kate sung this as an encore (and she was also wearing a red flower in her hair similar to this one!)

Another one of my favourites, which really showcases her voice – ‘You Belong To Me’ (loads more on YouTube!)

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has events on all summer until September

Kate Rusby is on tour around the UK until December – full details of all her upcoming shows on her website

Review: The Merchants of Bollywood

How a cheesy, Indian dance-fest re-awakened my unrelenting desire to travel to the world’s most fascinatingly seductive subcontinent   

Impossibly colourful, breathtakingly vibrant, relentlessly entertaining and hilariously cheesy, my evening in the company of the Merchants of Bollywood was the best fun I’ve had at the theatre for a very, very long time. Imagine sequins, colour, light shows, ridiculous overacting, satire and simply fantastic, infectiously energetic Bollywood dancing and musical rhythms, and you’ll only have captured half of the riotous evening that was had by all present. There was, truly, dancing in the aisles, and although my friend and I (just) stayed in our (highly-discounted, £10, yes!) seats, I absolutely loved it.

India

Colourful and chaotic: India

For reasons unknown, since I’ve never been to India and, as far as I’m aware, have no personal connections with the country, its culture, colours, languages, architecture and traditions fascinate me. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been in love with the fabulous array of fabrics, jewellery, pottery, flavours, spirituality, landscape, architecture and near-overwhelming bustle of humanity that emanate from all photographs and accounts of the region like the pulse from a raging, dancing heart. The more I find out about it, the more images, travel guides, travelogues, memoirs and magazine editorials that I see and read about the place, even the heart-wrenching accounts of the devastatingly unassailable levels of poverty, sexism, racism and innumerable other corruptions and injustices that sweep the subcontinent, only serve to make my yearning to travel and explore the faintly terrifying but completely irresistible maelstrom of the world’s largest democracy ‒ home to over 1 billion people, more complex, more confusing, more contradictory and more intoxicatingly fabulous than I can even fathom ‒ stronger.

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Theatre Review: Much Ado About Nothing

David Tennant and Catherine Tate sparkle in this modern production

David Tennant and Catherine Tate sparkle in this very modern production

What this adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing lacks in genuine Shakespearian wordplay, it more than makes up for in energy and humour, but I’d recommend anyone after a traditional 17th century experience to stay well away. Strippers and cross-dressing, anyone?

Right from the beginning, when a classical set of pillars gives way to eighties pop, fluorescent beach-wear and the immediately-recognisable Catherine Tate lounging nonchalantly on a sun lounger, it’s inescapably apparent that this will be no ordinary Shakespeare play. Indeed, this is Shakespeare, eighties-style, transported to a Gibraltar in fully-fledged summer holiday mode. David Tennant’s appearance on a golf buggy in a flurry of Union flags and sunglasses, albeit hilarious for fans of the endlessly versatile actor (myself included), merely confirms any initial impressions. And then it just gets weirder.

Tennant and Tate, a double act whose chemistry and wit have been proven time and time again in numerous television appearances from Tate’s own wonderfully funny sketch show to the BBC’s revived, phenomenally successful Doctor Who, are as compelling as expected, inhabiting Shakespeare’s banter between the two would-be lovers with ease. Their combination of perfect comedic timing, empathy and acidic humour give their relationship passion and vibrancy – everything that Benedick and Beatrice’s eventual-romance should be. Flashes of Tate’s famous characters, such as Nan, do appear from time to time, which some might say reveal her lack of range as an actor, but I feel made her Beatrice more likeable and warm; and familiarity with Tate’s style should certainly be no reason to denigrate it. I enjoyed the versatility and found her, and indeed, many of the other actors’, willingness to play around with the dynamics and timing of the script one of the most successful and memorable elements of the performance – that, and the image of David Tennant in lacy stockings complete with cigarette packet tucked under leather miniskirt during the first ‘party’ scene, will remain marked on my memory for some time to come.

Tennant and Tate....a little too good?

Tennant and Tate....a little too good?

‘The regressive plotline grates’

The problem with having a resoundingly successful twosome in the roles of Benedick and Beatrice, however, which, admittedly, Much Ado unquestionably needs, and possesses in spades in this production, is that all other characters fall a little flat in comparison. The rather simplistic plot, essentially an implausible dance of misunderstandings and mistaken identities (the ‘Nothing’ and, to take the play back to its Elizabethan English roots, ‘Noting’ or noticing, of the title), somehow lacks meat when played off against the backdrop of such sparkling protagonists in the two principle roles.

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Theatre Review: Flare Path

Flare Path is showing at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Flare Path is showing at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Written in 1941, and directed here by the much-lauded Trevor Nunn, Terence Rattigan’s wartime tale Flare Path successfully delves beyond initially grand impressions to examine the human details crouching timidly behind. Slightly clumsy at times, but frequently touching, and with a few standout turns, this is the superior offering of the two Rattigan works currently showing in London to mark the playwright’s centenary (Cause Celèbre, starring Anne-Marie Duff, is the other – see my review here).

Against the devastating backdrop of the Second World War and the awe-inspiring spectacle of RAF bomber late-night raids, Rattigan’s characters are shown to be funny and warm, as well as petty, rural, frail, vulnerable and frightened, largely gaining the audience’s affection to help present a human context of one of history’s most dreadful conflicts.

With a gravity and sympathy helped enormously by today’s modern sense of nostalgia and respect for the period surrounding World War Two, Flare Path tells the story of a group of fighter pilots, who, stationed in the Falcon Hotel in Lincolnshire, periodically go out on ever-more perilous night-time raids, using the hazardous ‘flare path’ lights to guide their planes, while their other halves try not to worry themselves sleepless as they wait for the men to return. One woman, Patricia, wife of the bomber pilot Teddy, finds herself uncomfortably wedged between her husband (Harry Hadden-Paton), almost a stranger to her, and her ex-lover, Peter Kyle, a famous film actor (James Purefoy) whose fading star has brought him to England to plead for the relationship’s rekindling.
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Theatre Review: Cause Celebre, at the Old Vic

Cause Celebre

Anne-Marie Duff stars as Alma Rattenbury in Thea Sharrock's Old Vic production

Despite touches of warmth, the Old Vic’s striking production of Rattigan’s tale of potential murderess Alma Rattenbury fails to achieve its glamorous aims

Rather like the glamorous red dress seen in advertising posters for Terence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre, but which never materialises in the actual production (or at least, not that I noticed), the Old Vic’s latest offering promises much but unfortunately falls short of many of its grandiose, glamorous aims.
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