As roommates, young London singletons Zoe and Ruth are as mismatched as
The Frida Kahlo of Penge West softens its message with silliness and slapstick, but it’s there, holding up a mirror to women who find pleasure in undermining each other.
Written and directed by Chris Larner of London’s KPS Productions, the 75-minute comedy has the madcap plot and swift pacing of a great sitcom. Shy Zoe, who says she’s “too afraid to live,” rarely leaves her mouse hole in Penge (“a cross between a minge and a pension”), and is secretly in love with her boss. Venturing out to buy tickets to an RSC production, she runs into her opposite, bumptious Ruth, a flashy friend from uni who uses her box office job to disabuse theatre patrons of their devotion to “400-year-old plays.”
Ruth, dumped by her actor-lover, aspiring to theatrical stardom herself (“I’m better than Dench! Dench is short!”), invites herself to camp out on Zoe’s red sofa. Days turn to weeks and one night, during a rant about the lack of good roles for women – “Women are 50 percent of the world. That’s nearly half, but you wouldn’t know it from the theatre,” huffs daffy Ruth – the roomies hatch an idea for a one-woman show about the Mexican feminist artist Frida Kahlo.
It turns into a one-woman play featuring both women: Ruth in the lead as Frida and Zoe playing both Kahlo’s muralist-husband, Diego Rivera, and her lover, exiled Bolshevik Leon Trotsky. What is already a cupcake of a comedy about the dynamics of female friendship gets extra icing from the zany play-within-the-play. Under cardboard eyebrows and a haphazardly placed black wig on her blond head, Ruth turns every reaction up to 11. Her eyes bug out; her arms flail like windmills. Like TV’s Lena Dunham (creator and star of the HBO series Girls), Cecily Nash is a go-for-broke physical comedian.
Nash and Scott-Taylor make the funny stuff look easy, which means they’ve worked hard to get it to that level. Their confidence as acting partners suits Larner’s adroit direction and smart writing, whose subtext hints at the imbalance of power in female friendships.
Frida Kahlo, consigned to a full-body cast after a bus accident, turned to painting to relieve her suffering. She found release in graphic self-portraits created by looking in a mirror over her sick bed. The Frida Kahlo of Penge West softens its message with silliness and slapstick, but it’s there, holding up a mirror to women who find pleasure in undermining each other. And always with a smile.