Tim Walker’s dramatisation of the Article 50 dispute between campaigner Gina Miller and former PM Theresa May lacks bite. Fitting, sure, given Bloody Difficult Women‘s criticisms of toxicity, masculinity and toxic masculinity, but it makes for an uneventful drama.
The New European journalist’s play is underwhelming however you frame it. It’s too wedded to its factual elements to offer much about the case that’s new, and too broad in its fictionalised subplots to make one overarching point. All of this undermines the nostalgia upon which the production relies a fair amount, too, as we can no longer dream of ‘simpler times’ of a high-profile legal challenge when Walker makes it look this complex.
With that said, there are references to ‘him’ (Jessica Turner’s May refuses to mention the then foreign secretary and soon-to-be successor by his actual name) and what’s to come. One of the main arguments put forward by Miller (Amara Kharan) for the court action taking place is around not wanting May to set a precedent around bypassing Parliamentary sovereignty and legal processes, and that of course happened in 2019.
Mr Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament amid a Brexit crisis was found to be unlawful, and so the threat of a Johnson government which May was keeping at bay and the precedent Miller wanted to stop happened nonetheless.
An interesting point to highlight, though tragically underdeveloped beyond Walker’s May wallowing in self-pity for not doing more while in the top job, and Miller musing that the Tories don’t like to be challenged. A more detailed speculation from the playwright on how she began a series of battles with the judiciary from Conservative PMs would have been fascinating, but is only teased in the play’s conclusion. At that point, Miller and May – resolutely and convincingly performed by Kharan and Turner respectively – finally come face-to-face, and similarities in their circumstances are unearthed at the very end of the plot.
Ultimately, Bloody Difficult Women tries to cover too much in too little time (the recorded version has a duration of 97 minutes) – a breadth as wide as Nicky Shaw’s horizontal set design which, save for showcasing some important textual information, is unremarkable.
Away from Miller vs May, we see two imaginary civil servants wrestle with civil service impartiality and disbelief at what is actually unfolding in government; a foul-mouthed Paul Dacre (former editor of the Daily Mail) straining to control the Brexit narrative; and a relationship between Miller and husband Alan (Edmund Kingsley) under strain amid media scrutiny and public abuse.
Each of these subplots would certainly be intriguing in solitude, but squeezed amongst others in the play’s running time, their potential isn’t fully accomplished. Civil servants struggling to maintain composure amid a string of successive shockers from government ministers would likely make for a thrilling sitcom or even a psychodrama. Dacre’s obsession with the breakdown of the Brexit ‘narrative’, frankly, needs its own play to explore the nuance in its entirety.
After all, it’s a towering amalgamation of a public fatigue and weariness over personal attacks (not least given the tragic murder of Jo Cox during the EU referendum campaign just a few years prior), continuing debate over what exactly is ‘the establishment’, and when Brexiteers truly care about sovereignty. Three elements which are simply impossible to cover alongside the main legal battle at the centre of Bloody Difficult Women.
The stress Gina and Alan’s relationship is put under amid the court case is no doubt impactful – the David vs Goliath of it all is plainly stated, and there’s clear parallels in Miller being cautioned by her husband about the severity of the issue and top civil servant Sir Hugh Rosen’s (Graham Seed) micromanaging of May. At one point, the PM decries being at the “beck and call” of men, but that doesn’t extend to Miller, whose partner first appears weary before suddenly being on board with the whole endeavour.
In a break from the narrative, Mr Miller – at one point – delivers a more descriptive monologue about his response to his wife’s judicial pursuit. It’s odd hearing him talk with such passion, as the sudden switch from sceptical spouse to supportive husband isn’t really explained, but it’s performed with great rhythm from Kingsley.
Some may criticise the scene as a jarring departure from the typical dialogue, but in this style of writing where Walker excels, for his conversations between two characters are often on-the-nose or stating the obvious. We’re told twice about how dislikable Brexit minister David Davis is and that the UK’s decision to leave the EU was never mentioned once in May’s election victory speech. When May wants to talk to Sir Hugh about something, we hear her tell the civil servant “there’s something we need to talk about”.
It may well be a pursuit of clarity (given the complex subject matter) which prompted the journalist to fall foul of the ‘show, don’t tell’ principle, but this – combined with surface-level subplots – means Bloody Difficult Women leaves little to the audience’s imagination.
Bloody Difficult Women played at the Riverside Studios from 24 February to 26 March. It is now available to stream online until 3 May.
It is unknown whether the filmed version comes with captions and/or audio description.
Production Images: Mark Senior.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Bloody Difficult Women’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for the above article and all opinions stated are honest and my own.