Review: Bloody Elle at The Royal Exchange Theatre

“It’s a bit of a risk, coming to the theatre,” Lauryn Redding tells us at the start of the show. We all laugh nervously, the spectre of closed theatres for the last eighteen months wandering through our minds. She waves her beer at us. “It might be shit.”

The one-woman musical, written and performed by Redding herself, is the complete opposite. Poignant, witty, heartbreakingly tender and very funny, Bloody Elle is one of the best pieces of theatre I have seen in a very long time.

Redding tells us the auto-fictional story of Elle, an 18-year old from a Merseyside council flat who works at the generically recognisable ‘Chips’n’Dips’. Into Elle’s monotonous world comes Eve, who starts working at the chip shop for the summer. Eve’s family have moved from London to one of the big posh houses with an electric gate and a driveway; Eve herself is off to Oxford University in September.

Redding performs each character in the story herself, slipping in and out of her own strong northern accent into Eve’s higher pitched, posh southern, to boss Barry’s Welsh, to her mum’s shout of ‘GOBSHITE!’ It’s most impressive in a scene where the Chips’n’Dips team go bowling for their annual party, each dressed in what they wanted to be as children. Redding (literally) turns from Barry, dressed as a Chesterfield sofa, into laddish Aaron, who has come as himself, with the word ‘LEGEND’ written across his forehead, to Eve (a whoopie cushion) to Elle (a long-distance lorry driver), without skipping a beat.

The minimal staging, in the round, is simply four microphones, an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar. The staging spreads out from a central, higher square, and Redding uses the space cleverly: one extension is the chip shop, a more central strip is home in Cloud Rise, another extension is Eve’s home.

It’s a guitar-heavy show. The songs develop and change throughout the show, starting with a sung-spoken opening in a Lucy Spraggan style. As Elle’s feelings develop, the songs become first more intense: there’s an indie-rock song at the bowling alley, with fast paced electric guitar pulse and added bass; and later on one of the most incredible songs I’ve ever heard. Redding sets up two higher-pitched notes on loop, and then adds a quiet sigh – pause – ‘fuck’ as rhythm underneath. And over the top she sings the most beautiful melody, weaving around and above the two pitches she set up. It shouldn’t work, I thought it couldn’t work, but by the end of the song I was holding back tears. Encapsulating first realisation, then understanding, then pure feeling, it really did feel like the ecstasy Redding was singing about.

The show is a journey: a journey towards understanding and accepting your sexuality, and towards understanding and accepting each other, despite being completely different. Elle and Eve have had contrasting life experiences growing up and have different expectations for the future. The initial awkwardness is broken down quickly, but their discussions highlight the north-south divide in a subtle but poignant way. Eve comes from London: Elle says she’s never been to London; Eve goes skiing with her parents: Elle’s never been on a plane. Elle describes Eve, from the first time we meet her, as having a ‘quiet confidence’, which Elle can’t explain, but is a very astute comment on the privilege Eve has had growing up.

It only struck me while watching Bloody Elle that female sexuality and lesbian relationships are still so underrepresented in musical theatre, which makes this show even more urgent. The love story is itself beautiful to watch: I’m not going to spoil it here. Redding has created something that should be seen across the country: it’s entertaining, it’s important, and it’s an absolutely outstanding piece of theatre.

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