Review: Bicycles and Fish, VAULT Festival

“My favourite film ever was Beauty and the Beast until we learnt about Stockholm Syndrome in PSHE”

As she acknowledges from the start, Katie Arnstein’s one-woman show Bicycles and Fish is light on both bicycles, and fish. What it is heavy on, is the story of when, aged 16 in a village outside of Lichfield, she stopped being a girl and became a woman, a decision the world made for her. Blending wittily concise stand-up with songs that combine the musical comedy sensibility of the inspirational Victoria Wood with the characterful musicality of Gywneth Herbert plus the forthright power of the confessional, this is a seriously impactful hour.

And it is a well-constructed one too. Arnstein’s writing is so beautifully rich that you can’t help but get hooked on any number of fascinating details that pass as she evokes that feeling of possibility that comes from being a carefree kid. I’d happily watch a spin-off show about the Lichfield Song Contest, or the GPs’ receptionist and her blush-saving acronyms, or June and her broken egg, or the school photo – particularly the school photo! 

The result is that you can’t help but be thoroughly charmed by the twinkling warmth of her slightly self-deprecating persona. Which further means that when the serious stuff comes, as it must, it hits with an even harder, eye-wincing force. Stories of sexism and sexual assault are never easy to hear and Arnstein rightly never lets us forget just how much can be lost.

But though deeply personal and deeply felt, Bicycles and Fish looks up and looks forward. Questioning our tendency to remember famous sons and not famous daughters, offering advice on where to find help, advice on how to not act like a dick and as a collage of voiceovers kicks in, it is the words of the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Jo Brand that start to drown out the Inverdales and the Trumps. With more clear-sighted and affecting work like this, Arnstein’s could well be a voice to add to that list. Definitely recommended.

Running time: 50 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 11th February

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