“Nobody could have worshipped his cock more than I did”
There’s something of a contradiction with Pam Gems’ 1975 play Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi. Labelled an early feminist classic and nominated as one of the top 100 plays of the twentieth century, it has since languished many a shelf and rarely been seen. Naturally it falls to the West London powerhouse of the Finborough to give it a long overdue revival but though Helen Eastman’s production gently highlights how many of its issues remain so pertinent today and is indeed excellently cast, it cannot disguise its dramatic slightness.
Part of it is intentional. Gems’ style was deliberately filmic, cutting between short scenes and skimming across the potential depth to her characters at the expense of focusing on the major events. So in this slice of life from a tiny shared apartment somewhere in London, we experience the trials of newly separated Dusa whose husband has run away from the divorce papers and smuggled their children away to Argentina, the self-assured Stas who is funding her dream of studying marine biology in Hawaii by working on the game, Vi’s emotional fragility is symptomised by her anorexic tendencies and the highly politically aware Fish can’t quite get over the fellow campaigner who is breaking her heart.
In just giving us the top slice of all these stories, Gems does avoid this becoming an issue-driven play, instead sketching a vivid portrait of the messy complexity of lives of women who were somehow challenging the status quo at a time when genuine change was increasingly a possibility. And with its episodic structure, there’s a fast-moving, almost sprawling quality, punctuated by strong emotional beats. Tortured mother Dusa gets most of these, Sophie Scott fiercely intense especially mid-panic attack, along with lynchpin of the group Fish, Olivia Poulet in a wonderfully measured performance that slowly unravels throughout the play.
But the hazy lack of detail also frustrates. There’s little to suggest the reason that these four women are actually choosing to live together either in the play or in the performances. Emily Dobbs – reminding me of a young Eve Best – is marvellous as the pragmatic deadpan Stas and Helena Johnson milks some good laughs as Vi starts her recovery, but it is hard to see their emotional connection to the other two ladies. And when the play makes a late stab at dramatic gravitas, the situation feels both scarcely earned and too abrupt.
Katie Bellman’s design and Matt Downing’s sound emphatically remind us of the 1970s setting and with that in mind, this excellently-acted production serves best as a period piece, albeit one with considerable echoes forward into our own time.