Bazaar and Rummage was written by Sue Townsend, best known for her Adrian Mole series, and incorporates some of the wry humour typical of those books. Its plot is simple: a group of agoraphobic women leave their houses for the first time in years to put on a rummage sale. But in its brief hour on stage it palpates everything from class to religion to gender roles.
At times Bazaar and Rummage feels like an ambivalent mishmash of styles.
The persuasiveness and efficiency of the play’s set-up is impressive. Gwenda (Laura Waldren) and Fliss (Helena Eccles) are social workers preparing for the rummage. Gwenda, we gather, is an older ex-agoraphobic; Fliss is still in training at University. Tension between the two — each thinks she knows best — frames the agoraphobes’ introductions, and the CUADC production manages the brisk humour of these early exchanges well. Enter Katrina, whose aristocratic airs and (Librium-induced?) docility are convincingly embodied by Emily Dance; and later the less polished Margaret (Bea Svistunenko), who suffers temporary nerve-induced paralysis and says to her legs: “Come on you bleeders, move!”
At times Bazaar and Rummage feels like an ambivalent mishmash of styles. There is an “operatic” interlude midway through, which represents the sale itself in a musical-like set piece. Elsewhere it slips into pure farce, as when Gwenda’s laying-on of hands is cross-cut with Katrina’s cries for Barry Manilow. Above all, though, the play feels a little pat: each of its characters (including the social workers) have ‘issues’, for example, which comes to seem didactic. Then there’s the feminist angle. Katrina’s monologue about her unvarying routine and overbearing husband, who practically keeps her indoors with a daily “digestive” about “the riots and the muggings and (...) the old people being murdered”, doesn’t quite convince. And Margaret’s story about the rape in which her child was conceived is truly harrowing, but it seems to fit simplistically into an all-female play about dependence and emancipation.
Sue Townsend had infallible sense for the zeitgeist, however, and the production – which premiered at the Royal Court in 1982 – affords an intriguing glimpse of the past. In Britain the 1970s saw spiralling unemployment, the Irish Troubles at their most violent, and miners’ strikes culminating in the temporary imposition of a three-day working week. In the context of this atmosphere of social unrest the play, complete with its shortcomings, comes to seem like a fascinating piece of evidence.