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Theatre Review: Bloody Difficult Women is a bloody good show

A turbulent time in British political history is delivered with composure, wit and a splash of humility

Jessica Turner (Theresa May) and Amara Karan (Gina Miller) in Bloody Difficult Women. Photo: Mark Senior

Bloody Difficult Women,
Riverside Studios, London, until March 26

The weather was abysmal, the trains weren’t running and the buses (albeit not ones with false promises of £350m a week for the NHS written on them) were delayed. As foreshadowing goes for an evening spent watching a play about Brexit, Article 50 and misogyny, it felt fairly apt. At least, so I thought.

Directed by Stephen Unwin, Bloody Difficult Women is The New European writer Tim Walker’s theatrical debut, depicting how Theresa May (Jessica Turner) hoped to trigger Article 50 without parliamentary approval after the Brexit vote and how activist and businesswoman Gina Miller (Amara Karan) set out to stop her. The two women sat on different sides of the argument, and for symbolic purposes, opposite ends of Nicky Shaw’s minimalist yet effective stage. But, for Walker’s retelling of their story, they shared a title – bloody difficult women.

In reality, the infamous character assessment by Ken Clarke, caught on camera in a TV studio in 2016, was only ever made in reference to May. Karan’s performance of Miller, however, makes the case as to why the woman who took the government to court is equally deserving of the handle. Presenting as the stubborn defender of “process”, she remains composed despite the barrage of abuse hurled at her by the hostile media. At her side is her husband, Alan (Edmund Kingsley), who defends her as avidly as his wife does the law.

May, on the other hand, could use a defender. Turner plays her negotiating a hostile political system, battling patronising remarks from a senior adviser (Graham Seed) and wrestling to keep the rightwing press satisfied.
Bloody difficult or not, however, May is somewhat prematurely aged in the production. On her first day in No 10, emerging from the gate shrill-voiced and grey, she gives the impression of a 1990 Margaret Thatcher rather than a 2016 May, or even a 2019 May, worn out by a parliament working against her.

Stealing the show was a bloody awful man. Andrew Woodall’s portrayal of Paul Dacre shows the former Daily Mail editor conspiring against Miller and manipulating May in his quest to control the narrative, assisted by a Cockney-rhyming underling (Calum Finlay) and dramatically aided by Daily Mail headlines appearing behind him on an interactive backdrop. Meanwhile, Dacre’s own rhetoric is flooded with a colourful variety of swearwords. It makes for humorous watching.

Spanning the course of five years in 90 minutes – no mean feat – there were plenty of current references to chime with a contemporary audience. From gags about May’s new curtains, “they’re John Lewis”, to Miller’s on-the-nose remark with obvious links to Partygate, “if those who govern us don’t stick to the rules, no one will”.

There was someone absent from the evening, despite many a laugh made at his expense. Boris Johnson’s name isn’t uttered once. Instead, he is referred to as a political Lord Voldemort – he who must not be named in May’s office. Comedic value is doubled here as the mind is permitted to wonder what Johnson would look like bald, rather than sporting his usual unkempt mop.

Generally, I avoid dramatisations of the EU referendum and the events that followed. When escapism is supposed to hoist you away from reality, it always seemed counterproductive. It was a pledge made after succumbing to Brexit: The Uncivil War, based on Tim Shipman’s All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class and Craig Oliver’s Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit. The 92 minutes left me cold.

Bloody Difficult Women, however, did not. Anticipating a sombre performance, this documentary-style play with imagined dialogue surprised me. A turbulent time in British political history was delivered with composure, wit and a splash of humility. I’d happily return to watch the drama unfold again – on stage that is, not in reality.

The Article 50 court case is finished, but misogyny is not and nor is the fall-out from Brexit. Walker tackles the final scene by scripting a modern-day meeting between the two women filled with both confrontation and tender moments. Would the events of 2020 finally cause the pair to change their attitude towards one another? It seems unlikely. After all, they are bloody difficult women.

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