Let’s drop the gimmick and see what we’re left with: Four women in objectively bad relationships sit on stools on stage and discuss their sexual experiences in explicit detail. New ground is left firmly unploughed. Let’s insert gimmick: Four women in objectively bad relationships sit on stools on stage and discuss their sexual experiences in explicit detail using only one vowel each. Our conceptions of the rigidity and fluidity of our language are revolutionised, the inner-thoughts of these women are made clearer and everyone gives themselves a pat on the back. Well, not quite.
As far as theatrical gimmicks go this one is interesting, but beyond appreciating the effort that must have gone into constructing the script it serves no other purpose than to get the audience to listen intently for any vowel-related cock-ups (I spotted two: ‘times’ and ‘tried’, but I’m a pernickety bugger). Every show employs a gimmick to some extent, in the case of Vowel Play it’s one that absorbs a lot of audience attention and gives little in return.
True, using only one vowel each gives the characters a certain sound and shape, Beth’s various long o’s fit well with her Scottish accent, while Jess’ clipped i’s give her a stuttering, uncomfortable edge (which probably explains why she says ‘Shit; every other word) and Kim’s a’s are brash, loud and playful but it all comes crashing down with Hannah. While the other three characters try and play down the gimmick by injecting at least some fluidity into their speech, Carey Mackenzie (who is fine with the term ‘dyke’ because ‘lesbian’ has an ‘i’ and an ‘a’ in it) seems all too aware of the conceit and so fires out her lines like she’s trying desperately hard to make them up on the spot. It just highlights what a (un)necessary part of the play the whole vowel thing is.
The bulk of Vowel Play is done in monologue form, understandable given how the opening dialogues make clear how awkward they are to do in this form, and the strength of the women’s emotional feelings and sexual dilemmas is finely portrayed by three out of the four actors (honestly, Mackenzie sounded like she was drifting in and out of a smack-induced coma), but it’s still a thinly veiled attempt to add some staple feminine depth to what is, in the end, a literary exercise and nothing more.