Agnes, played by Abi Tedder, is hosting a wake for the father who abandoned her as a child.
It’s sentimental. Agnes, without fatherly support from a young age, has remained a child emotionally, socially and romantically; and many things about the production are delightfully child-like: drawings projected onto a cardboard box and the way Tedder wears all black mourning clothes except for multi-coloured socks and shoes.
It’s funny too. Food and drinks are relentlessly spilt on Agnes; her inner monologue cuts in via voiceover to leer her on to saying either offensive things about her step-mother or embarrassing tales of sexual misdemeanour; she impersonates off-stage characters and relates conversations between her and them with great skill.
The sentimentality and humour already present in the script are enhanced by Tedder, who is a joy to watch as she bounds all over the stage, makes reptile-like faces, and at times looks tenderly out into the audience as if searching through it for a friend. With a touch more confidence and with sharper direction, the gags have the potential to be hilarious. At first it didn’t seem necessary for Agnes to seem so desperate for laughs after every punch-line, but then as the play progressed it made more sense that Agnes, so masochistically eager to please everyone, would put so much emphasis on making us – perfect strangers – enjoy ourselves.
The structure of the play could also be tweaked somewhat. Instead of demanding sympathy for Agnes about her situation so early in the play, perhaps more purely unadulterated fun in the first half would work better. Once we’ve been well and truly won over by Agnes, the flickers of vulnerability would be felt more dearly.
It would now be wise to address feminism, the elephant in the room of the Pleasance Courtyard’s Baby Grand. ‘Anything But’ does indeed set itself up as a feminist work, challenging the idea that people should want ‘anything but (a one-woman play)’, by presenting us with a character who, in Abi Tedder’s words, is ‘neither an idiot, nor someone defined by their appearance’. She’s a fully developed character, both likable and laughable.
However, some of the play’s statements I found either controversial, or just confusing. Agnes discovers an old sex-education book at one point in the play, and opens it to read out various ill-conceived names for female genitalia. Not only is this incredibly close in material to ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ but it also sits strangely with the rest of the play, which I was not aware was about Agnes’ society-induced repressed sexuality so much as her generally low father-induced self-belief.
Yet ‘Agnes’ (aptly meaning pure) has remained a virgin until the day of her father’s funeral, which is interesting. Agnes has spent her life suffering her father’s abandonment, and it becomes clearer throughout the play that she is replicating her father’s absence by finding a new male protector in the form of Jason, a half-witted loser soon to become her lover. This ending poses a not very empowering message for feminism, but it’s perhaps an ending that’s – sadly and poignantly - true for many women.
This is a piece both witty and heart-warming. Get your ticket, and you’ll be anything but disappointed.