In the lobby of Centrepoint theatre tonight, a blackboard was up asking who our female icon was. Though the usual suspects of "Frieda Kahlo", "Emma Watson" and "Mum" were all present and correct, I'm sure kiwi and legendary suffragist Kate Sheppard holds a similar place in the heart on many New Zealanders. Leading the fight for women's rights and helping New Zealand to become the first country in the world to give women the vote, "That Bloody Woman" tells Sheppard's life story with a denim-clad, scaffolding-climbing aesthetic and rock anthem show tunes to bring this historic story to life with the attitude of modern feminism.
Lisa Chappel takes on the role, and the narrative of the show consists mostly of her explaining each stage of her life, before either the all-female ensemble or a character, such as Leona Revell in the role of Shepard's friend Jennie, come on for a number. It is a good strategy in theory, and director Lyndee-Jane Rutherford and choreographer Leigh Evans create dynamic and energetic stage images to propel it forward. Unfortunately, though it is clear the creatives are passionate about this project and do their best to create something both entertaining and empowering, it falls short of the latter. The performance starts with two of the ensemble cast storming into the stage and mockingly express public protest at their walking around without a chaperone and flashing ankle. The difficulty arises when that sense of humour of laughing at old-fashioned values is applied to a time when those values actually existed; the tone does not match the themes or setting and you never really get the impression of the struggle that Sheppard or the suffragists faced.
The intention of the piece is obviously to inspire its audience by retelling this story in such a way as to breathe a modern aggression into its audience, but with songs literally entitled "Fuck Fuck Fuckety Fuck Fuck Fuck", that do little to examine the situation Sheppard faced, it feels as though the show is too busy being rebellious against the patriarchy to actually say anything of value. Nevertheless, it was a faulted idea well handled. The design of "That Bloody Woman" beautifully blends 70s-80s punk in Wai Mihinui's set, with femininity in Tayla Pilcher's purple and raspberry lighting, and with both of these elements into the studded belts, fishnets, and winged eyeliner in Hayley Douglas' costume.
They also match the tone of the musical numbers, mostly power ballads, though there were certainly several songs that sounded a little too similar to each other. Then again, part of that may be a result of the consistently out of tune, out of time singing from the cast. They act with a great deal of energy throughout, but their singing leaves a lot to be desired. This is particularly obvious when too much is asked of them, for example being intoxicated and male in "Punch Drunk", which is stale and drawling to the point of being difficult to listen to. The decision to signify male characters with handlebar moustaches on sticks was a nice touch though.
That is, with the exception of Chappel. Her portrayal brings out her feisty nature, her resilience in the face of oppression and opposition, and her emotionality, especially in her spine-tingling rendition of "A Whole Tempest in Your Loving Soul", about the tragic death of Sheppard's son. Her singing throughout is elating and empowering. My only criticism is that, perhaps out of either Rutherford or Chappel's admiration for Sheppard, she is given reverence that may get in the way of her being relatable, but given the tone of the musical overall that is of meagre importance to the power of her performance. "That Bloody Woman" is brimming with good intention and has strong creative elements, but ultimately comes off as too enthusiastic to be effective. Two stars.
Disclaimer: I saw "That Bloody Woman" on a preview night, meaning that since I saw it the performance may have changed.
Whispers from the Crowd:
"It was really cool, lots of humour, and the singing was amazing"