Theatre audiences are, for the most part, quite comfortable with their self-assigned role of secret voyeurs of the people on stage who go about their lives with no apparent knowledge that they’re being observed. In this female four-hander, however, which is bubbling with energy and, at times, barely suppressed anger, theatre writer and director Adura Onashile makes us much more complicit.
Misuse of women is contrasted in the modern-day club scenes with the implied voyeurism and the use of date rape drugs
Designer Karen Tennent’s set is a simple framework which means, as an audience, we can’t not be aware of supposedly watching what’s happening through an invisible fourth wall or, given the makeup repairs the cast soon start making towards us, imaginary one-way mirrors. It’s only later that we realise that we’ve actually been cast as a different kind of audience.
Expensive Shit is set in two locations: a generic present-day nightclub (which the faded posters suggest is in Glasgow) and the Shrine club in 1970s’ Lagos, where women came to stay under the protection of pioneering Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti. The switches between the two are indicated chiefly through Simon Hayes’ lighting design and Matt Padden’s soundscape – subdued bass beats for the nightclub contrasted with Fela’s full-on Afrobeats.
The common connection between these two locations is Tolu (a forthright Sabina Cameron) who in the present day is the self-mocking ‘Queen of the Toilets’, scraping a living from tips and selling cheap makeup essentials. Cameron’s three fellow cast members, meantime, switch from being young “women” desperate for the alleged life-chances arising from becoming some of Fela’s dancers, to supposedly independent modern “ladies” looking for a good time at the weekend.
Back at the Shrine club, Tolu dreamed of becoming Africa’s first female band leader. It’s obvious that she doesn’t achieve this although Onashile’s script holds back on why until near the close in a pivotal scene in which Tolu essentially dares to raise her head in what – for all its supposed political and creative radicalism – remains very much a patriarchal community.
Given the relatively brief running time, it’s inevitable that most of the characterisation is somewhat limited despite the best efforts of the cast to breathe life into them. Like some manufactured girl group (which is not an entirely inappropriate metaphor) during the Lagos scenes Teri Ann Bobb Baxter comes across as the gutsy one, Diana Yekinni as the bolshy one, and Jamie Marie Leary as the poor innocent who’s horrified to find “her name on the door” and therefore expected to trade her virginity for an improved social position within Fela’s commune.
This misuse of women is contrasted in the modern-day club scenes with the implied voyeurism and the use of date rape drugs. There is obviously anger at the heart of Expensive Shit but while we are given a real sense of outraged women at last taking control of their own image, there’s nevertheless a sense that such anger isn’t enough, and the realisation that we haven’t progressed, as a society, anywhere as far as we might think we have done.