Florence Howard’s Agatha, at the Theatre503, is undoubtedly a play with something to say. It tells the story of Agatha and Ben from their first meeting to the end of their relationship, as they navigate Ben’s expectation of a family and Agatha’s lack of desire for one as a deal-breaker for both of them. On top of that, we see Agatha’s relationship with her own mother, Lena, who walked out on her at a young age, and her fear that her lack of maternal interest will leave her child in the same predicament as Agatha was as a child.

Credit: Marshall Stay

Howard both wrote the play and plays the title character, and her performance is undoubtedly the highlight of the evening. Writer-performers don’t always work, often being better at one medium than the other, but Howard shows the advantage of it. Her understanding of her own script and its rhythms brings a real tenderness to the role. The other great highlight of the evening is Carly Brownbridge’s set, a monochrome design with a square and round platform poorly tessellating, symbolising Aggy and Ben’s incompatibility as partners. The refusal to brand anything, to the point of using white paper to cover a pile of books in the corner, is a strong aesthetic choice, though one suspects a practical one too as the space becomes increasingly messy over the show.

That aesthetic strength, though, is part of the play’s weakness. Howard presents Agatha as an everywoman to make her argument about women’s autonomy feel like it has a universal application, but the unfortunate side-effect is that there is little to root Agatha and Ben in any sense of specific reality. As a result, it is difficult to pin down their characters; even when they ask for something to drink, it is simply ‘a glass of…’ rather than a named beverage. As a conceit, it has potential, but in practice, it strips the characters and situation of the detail that would ground them in reality.

The other great issue is that Howard’s thesis is that not wanting children is a simple enough reason to say no. She is of course right, but the presentation of this absolute thesis early on leaves us with nowhere to go for the next seventy minutes. As a result, the play does not feel like a nuanced exploration of the issue but rather a repetition of a single dogma. This is not helped by the small cast, who spend a lot of time narrating things that have previously happened. There is real potential in the story – I found myself really wanting to see the scene, narrated by Ben and Agatha, when Ben informs his mother of Agatha’s pregnancy against her consent. The story has real dramatic potential, and Howard’s dialogue is strong enough that with a bit of rejigging, we could see a really powerful piece of theatre. Right now, however, it feels a little undercooked.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Agatha is on at Theatre 503 until the 15th of July – info here!

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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