The world premiere of Sadie Hasler’s Stiletto Beach has burst onto the stage at the dynamic Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch in a bold, brave, fearless and funny exploration of what it means to be an Essex girl. It’s her first big work for the full stage and forms part of the theatre’s Essex on Stage programme.
A powerful polemic against stereotypical portrayals of Essex girls
Hasler is well-qualified to write this commissioned play. She grew up in Southend and draws on that experience and the feeling of loving her hometown
‘with a ferocity you only get after ten Stellas (ok, two)’. She claims the title just came to her from out of the blue, but that it gave a focus to her work which she explains as ‘the lambasted iconic prop of the ridiculous Essex girl stereotype, and the heartland of my hometown; the beach.’ It also led her to think about the sort of world she wanted her baby daughter to grow up in, which must be one in which she can be proud of being from Essex.
Dame Viv (Angela Clerkin) appears aloft in academic gown as the graduation ceremony’s guest speaker. Her words punctuate the other scenes providing a neat structure to the play. Her impeccable RP belies her Essex roots and everything she has in common with the two flatmates Kelly (Danielle Flett) and Leanne (Emily Houghton) and the latter’s mother, Roni (Linda Broughton). They are as Essex as they come. They know all the jokes and all the stereotypical images and prejudices that abound about them. They also know how to live up to them. Career-minded Helen (Amy Vicary-Smith) moves into the apartment, having lived elsewhere and not absorbed the local qualities in her childhood. She writes an article for the Guardian about life in Essex, which once her editor goes to work on it turns out to be less subtle that she intended. The other girls are up in arms, but after the initial fury the the three are drawn together in a series of ventures that seek to redress the balance.
The rather dry, stately lecture style of Clerkin’s address is in marked contrast to the earthy, bubbly dialogues and outbursts of the two Essex girls and in particular to that of Houghton. She goes out of her way to live up to the archetypal, busty, brash blonde bimbo providing abundant humour and delivering the vivid imagery with zeal. At times it’s too much, and in all the shouting and ranting in an extreme Essex accent words and sometimes whole sentences are often lost. Fleet plays the foil with comparative dignity in this double act, in an Essex sort of way, knocking the banter back and forth while coping with her flatmate’s excesses. Broughton shows where her daughter got it all from and while age has clearly tempered her spirit the wit is still there along with local pride and family bonding in words that she delivers with sensitivity and often nostalgic calm. Vicary-Smith, meanwhile, seems to represent the rest of the country looking in on the phenomenon that is Essex, trying to understand and make sense of it. In so doing she smoothly transitions for being the outsider to almost one of the girls.
Casting Director, Matthew Dewsbury successfully found a mix of actors that both complement and contrast in their performances and Director Emma Baggott has carefully worked these to great effect. Designer Dora Schweitzer, Lighting Designer Douglas Kuhrt and Sound Designer Steve Mayo have artfully and imaginatively harmonised their respective elements to evoke moods and locations. The script, however, has the air of an unrevised work that is still in its early days and that will benefit from editing and cutting. Currently a succession of false endings drags out the play’s culmination with the message often feeling overworked and laboured.
Stiletto Beach is a powerful polemic against stereotypical portrayals of Essex girls that will entertain not just the locals, who will delight in often seeing aspects of themselves on stage, but also those from outside who have heard and told the jokes. They might also find within it the message of taking care of how you present yourself, of reflecting on what you say about others and of the impact that making assumptions can have on people's lives.