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If there were an award for the most excruciating opening scene of a play ever, Unidentified Item in the Bagging Area would probably win it. We’ve barely met Victoria before we find her knickerless and spread-eagled on an examination table as her gynaecologist advances, wielding the dreaded speculum. It is an uncomfortable and painful introduction, for us as much as her, which perfectly sets the tone of this at times cringe-inducing black comedy from talented newcomer Sarah Simmonds.
Unidentified Item in the Bagging Area follows the misadventures of Victoria, a post-menopausal fifty-year old with a husband who doesn’t notice her and an absent son who has recently flown the nest. Feeling lonely and lacking purpose, Victoria joins a menopause support group where she meets the extrovert Meg, who runs a sex hotline and doesn’t seem to give a damn about anything. Inspired by her bravado, Victoria leaves her husband and moves in with Meg in an effort to re-discover herself.
The mid-life crisis of a bored housewife is certainly nothing new. Ever since the eponymous heroine confessed her troubles to the kitchen wall in Willy Russell’s 1986 comedy Shirley Valentine, the premise of a frustrated wife rebelling against her domestic confines to seek personal fulfilment elsewhere has often been explored in popular culture and Simmonds tackles the idea confidently, deftly exploring the heartbreak as well as the comedy inherent in the subject to good effect.
Simmonds’ real strength, however, lies in her ability to exploit the comic potential from the everyday situations we all recognize: the infuriating commentary of the malfunctioning self-service till at the supermarket or the stilted conversation between a patient and doctor during an awkward medical examination. It is an accomplished piece of playwriting, tightly structured with well-drawn characters. The dialogue does, occasionally, let it down; the blunt crudeness during some of the exchanges is more suggestive of student banter than the conversation of middle-aged adults. For example, when Victoria rebuffs the advances from her seemingly-charming doctor, Gareth, his harsh response of “Fuck off, you crinkly old bitch!” seems completely misjudged. Gareth is an educated medical professional who doesn’t seem that far off middle age himself, and it didn’t ring true to me that he would be so coarse, or indeed as callous, as to respond in this way. Likewise, Meg is so foul-mouthed and bigoted, it seems madness that Victoria would ever consider moving in with her as there is so little to like about her. It’s a shame, because Simmonds is capable of so much more. Jeremy’s moving soliloquy in the second half, beautifully delivered by John McAndrew, is an exquisitely articulated outpouring from a broken man, trying to make sense of his failing health and disintegrating marriage.
Jenny Ogilvie gives a convincing performance as Victoria, and there is a strong supporting cast, with particularly good turns from Kate Russell Smith as Anita, who seems to be channelling a young Penelope Wilton to great comic effect, and Andy Rush who gives a perfectly understated performance as Victoria’s conflicted and confused son Harry.
Louise Shephard’s direction is flawless and the imaginative transitions between the scenes in which the entire cast descend on the stage to re-set the scenery amid dream-like montages of music and dancing, often provide moments of unexpected hilarity.
The stark, white set, designed by Kady Howey Nunn, is redolent of a padded cell which works very effectively in the cosy confines of the Old Red Lion Theatre, heightening the neuroses of the characters it encloses, adding to the sense of claustrophobia as we witness the desperation of these people trapped in their unhappy lives.
It’s difficult not to be reminded of Shirley Valentine as the drama unfolds. Like Shirley, our protagonist is lonely, unappreciated by her husband and driven to drastic measures in her pursuit of self-discovery. However, the denouement of Simmonds’ play is considerably bleaker than that of Russell’s. This is not a woman who transcends the throes of personal crisis to become a rejuvenated, ultimately better version of herself, and a greasy flat above a chip shop is hardly the same as a sun-drenched beach in Greece. She repeatedly tells her husband, “I don’t need you any more”, “I don’t want to come back”, but she doesn’t explicitly state what she does want. It seems she really doesn’t know herself.
As the eponymous Valentine once said:
“Why do we get all this life if we don’t ever use it? Why do we get all these feelings and dreams and hopes if we don’t ever use them?”
Victoria may have followed her heart in escaping her unhappy marriage, but for what? I couldn’t help wondering if she has merely swapped one semi-existence for another, and until she lets go of the past and stops yearning for the life she once had, she is never going to find true happiness.
Unidentified Item in the Bagging Area may focus on the mid-life crisis of a woman, but the human struggle, the need for meaning in one’s life and the pursuit of happiness are themes which resonate with everyone, and the ambiguous ending makes no attempt to offer us the answers. Instead, we’re left with a gnawing sense of uneasiness which lingers long after the lights have dimmed.
Unidentified Item in the Bagging Area continues at the Old Red Lion until November 8.