Royal Exchange, Manchester.
“It starts with a girl called Elle,
she’s not your average leading lady as well,
she has a heart the size of the moon,
she’s far from been brought up with a silver spoon, in her gob”
Centre stage, and swigging from a bottle of beer, Lauryn Redding sets the scene within the opening moments of her self-penned gig musical Bloody Elle. With disarming informality, Redding engages directly with the audience. She’s here to share a story – very much her story – she’s Elle. Single-handedly, she assembles a lively cast of characters around her, as we step back in time to Elle’s formative years.
Life bounces back and forth between her family home on the tenth floor of an Oldham tower block and regular shifts behind the counter of local eatery Chips and Dips. The arrival of Eve, a new work colleague, stirs up a lot of feelings among the tubs of sour cream and baba ghanoush.
Redding shifts seamlessly from family squabbles, to workplace banter, a growing connection with Eve, and Elle’s inner thoughts. It’s a testament to her skills as a writer and performer that, despite juggling a small community’s worth of roles, her narrative is conveyed with clarity and deceptive ease.
Full of smart observations, and warmed by humour, the dialogue is not without flourishes, but is never fancy. As Elle wrestles with young love and messy feelings, there’s a genuine authenticity to her voice – open, direct, and vulnerable.
On the surface, as a story of queer romance, the direction of travel feels familiar. Though, on reflection, this is usually a story centred around gay male love, rarely one told from a contemporary lesbian perspective. What hurts most is Elle’s struggles with shame – and how that has been shaped by the words and views of those close to her – is she all the “awful things” that people say?
Elle’s story has many layers and the script is particularly strong on the subtle stranglehold that class can exert. For a young woman who has “never been to London, never been on a plane”, there’s a fascination with the details of Eve’s life – a doctor for a father, foreign travel, a jacuzzi, and a home filled with books. With a place at Oxford University sorted, Eve is only ever passing through. Despite Elle’s high-rise view of the clouds, her horizon is less broad.
Whatever the outcome of their youthful romance, Elle’s eyes have been opened to a world of possibilities. Trying on Eve’s “quiet confidence” for size, nudges her towards applying for music college. Why not? Elle too is entitled to have dreams.
Design-wise, the production feels low-key. Pub tables crowd around the stage, and a series of split-level platforms break up the space and the action. Variations in lighting, with some help from a mirror ball and a few candles, do the heavy lifting when it comes to signalling shifts in mood or changes in location.
In fairness, Redding’s words are capable of painting vivid pictures on their own. A drunken works fancy dress night at the Megabowl leads to some tentative handholding between a long-distance lorry-driver and a whoopee cushion, then a close up of “guacamole green eyes”, and eventually, a first “10 out of 10” kiss in a ginnel down the side of a pub.
There’s the music too, and Elle’s self-proclaimed ‘potty mouth’ is also capable of conveying sweet sounds and soulful emotion. Redding switches smoothly between spoken word and song, blending the two to maximum effect. She also brings a strong physicality to her performance, able to own that big space or shrink into it, expressing shout-out-loud joyfulness, or looking as if she wants the world to swallow her up.
Artistic Director Bryony Shanahan and Movement Director Yandass Ndlovu are both familiar with the Exchange’s in-the-round stage, and their expertise ensures that this one woman show flows around it, and never once looks lost or out of place within its unforgiving sightlines.
Frustratingly, there is a fumbled ending, with too many shifts in tone in a short space of time, but by this point the production has the audience firmly on side.
Apparently, there are only eight miles between Manchester’s main theatre and the home of the tubular bandage, but for Redding this has been a ten-year journey, and not always (as she makes clear) a smooth one.
In a recent interview she describes premiering her play at the Royal Exchange as “proper pinch-me-stuff”. For all that her story looks back, with some pain and regret, there’s a strong sense of arrival in her performance. Bloody Elle feels like a recognition of distance travelled, and a celebration of achievement, as well as a triumphant moment under the spotlight. What it is not though is a conclusion. For Redding, there is undoubtedly more to come.
Images by Pippa Rankin