MADDIE DUNN reviews Freak at the Bloomsbury Studio.

UCL’s Viva La Vulva is a group consisting primarily of medical students who campaign to raise awareness of issues around women’s health. Could there be a better group (and group name!) than this to perform Anna Jordan’s Freak, a play which thoroughly and frankly questions female identity, sexuality and empowerment in the 21st century?

Director Dr Pollyanna Cohen missed no opportunities, utilising the black-box studio to create an intimate setting which instantly alerted the audience to the heightened sexuality of the female image today: lingerie was strewn on the floor, a vibrator was placed conspicuously on the table downstage and, most strikingly, the back wall was plastered with posters of female models. Jordan’s two characters – 15-year-old Leah (Phoebe Garthwaite) and 30-year-old Georgie (Agnes Dromgoole)– were enveloped, both literally and metaphorically, by the societal tendency to place female value on being overtly sexual. Leah sings along to Estelle’s ‘I can be a freak’, Veets every inch of her body and is arguably rushed into losing her virginity with her boyfriend Luke, all of which proved the pressures young women feel today as a result of the media, friends and a society dominated by male pleasure. Garthwaite played this role with vibrancy and successfully created a contrast with the character’s foil, Georgie. Even though this second character is far older than Leah, and more sexually mature, upon being dumped by her boyfriend and losing her father, she feels she has nothing but her body to contribute to a male-dominated society. As the character says, she punishes herself by not giving herself or her body any respect.

Photo courtesy of Stefan

Jordan’s play is a bold choice to perform because of its consistently explicit content and language. However, Viva La Vulva should be commended for bringing it to life, not only because they dealt with the play so professionally and passionately, but because in choosing it they transcended the taboo on discussing female sensuality, pleasure and image. At first I was apprehensive of the delicate and youthful Dromgoole taking on a character who is much older than her, as well as hardened due to her life experiences, and her Bridget Jones-esque characterisation in the early moments of the play was not 100% convincing. However, in the final scene, Georgie and Leah finally converse face to face- before this the play consists of monologue scenes. Dromgoole’s maturity was exceptional here and I was moved by the poignancy of the scene and the chemistry between the two actresses.

Photo courtesy of Stefan

The performance was at its best when the characters’ dialogue was contrapuntal as this escalated the intensity of the scene in which Georgie’s describes what undeniably constitutes sexual violence, creating a particularly uncomfortable – in fact horrifying – atmosphere. Although Georgie puts herself in the situation, the scene questions what constitutes consent and it is telling that Georgie blames and slut-shames herself afterwards: ‘I did something bad’ she says. This line is then echoed by Leah when she admits that she had oral sex with her friend Sophie, this time proving how many young women feel it wrong to go against the heterosexual norm. Besides the themes of sexual violence and identity, Freak also hints at body dysmorphia; Leah’s strict new diet, running regime and disciplining against foods like pizza, as well as Georgie’s reported weight-loss are just a few moments which suggest this. I do think that these moments could have been accentuated further in the production, as this is such an important issue arising from the play’s central theme of female sexuality.

Overall, Freak was extremely effective in educating its audience about just some of difficulties which women face today and the panel discussion which took place immediately after only added to this. As soon as Freak was published and performed in 2014 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival I was eager to see it; there are few plays which deal so honestly with the female image in an increasingly sexualised society. Viva La Vulva did not disappoint, nor did they shun away from its graphic images and topics. It is a shame that this production was just on for one night, and I look forward to seeing what else Viva La Vulva will achieve on behalf of the female community.

UCL Viva La Vulva’s production of Freak took place on Tuesday 19th March in the Bloomsbury Studio. Find more information here.

Featured image courtesy of Stefan.