What could have been Britain’s answer to Waitress provides some catchy songs and glimmers of a captivating story, but needs bolder direction and some structural refining to get there.
In Documental Theatre’s Hot Flushes, meek and loyal BHS employee Sandra (Michelle Ridings) has had dreams of fulfilling her country music dreams in America for decades – but when she learns that her pension has ceased to exist, a chance encounter spurns her to take actions into her own hands.
Programmed as part of the annual Calm Down, Dear festival at Camden People’s Theatre, Hot Flushes is an original take on a familiar premise: the greed of the powerful and the disenfranchised older population who suffer because of it. The notion of situating a quintessentially British scandal (that of Sir Phillip Green being questioned in parliament) within the country music genre is left field and exciting. Viewing the scandal through the everyday people affected by it would be much more harrowing had it not been for the fact that Hot Flushes doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s something quaint about protagonist Sandra, and her layabout husband. Their dialogue wittily portrays the complacency that is dominating their lives without veering into the tedious.
The songs are well written and on the whole quite catchy. “Help Yourself” is a stand-out number, and the tongue-in-cheek female empowerment country song every woman needs. The music is strongest when the ensemble sings together and exhibit strong harmonies, but some solo songs just aren’t as enthralling as they could be. Katy Sobey stands out as the gusty gun toting Patsy, not only with her infallible American accent but her stellar voice and instrumentation as well. Her saxophone playing adds a delightful jazzy layer to the country music. However, the little choreography that punctuates the songs is both generic and underwhelming. Often, the ensemble feels as though they are just bopping along to the music rather than executing definitive moves that further accentuates whatever they are singing about, and this can be distracting at times.
Whilst the dialogue is quite clever, the characterisation isn’t as fully realised as it could be – and as the musical reaches its final act, Sandra’s emotional journey feels quite rushed. Moreover, the “hot flushes” she experiences feel like an afterthought as opposed to a very real (and often not sufficiently talked about) thing that she must deal with. There are some interesting themes that are presented to the audience (Sandra’s childhood, her daughter’s relationship) but they aren’t quite refined enough. In one scene, Patsy quips “this conversation wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test” and immediately the scene is bogged down with the heavy handedness of that remark. In the end, the directing picks up as Sandra drifts further away from reality until one scene where her disassociation climaxes. Unfortunately, the impact of the moment is lost due to the meandering plot. With sharper writing and a stronger direction, more momentum could be achieved throughout Hot Flushes, thus leading us to a more satisfying story overall.
Ultimately, Hot Flushes explores some truly interesting musical and thematic elements but does so rather clumsily. The occasional scene where all the moving parts – from the song, to the acting, plot and direction – come together is truly a joy to watch, but it’s not quite enough to elevate this into the truly quirky musical that it should be. Hot Flushes could be Britain’s eccentric answer to Waitress with the opportunity of a meaty role for an older actress, but alas, it needs bolder direction and some structural refining until it gets there.