Edinburgh Fringe 2009
Venue: Assembly Hall
Festival: Edinburgh Fringe
The body gets the Vagina Monologues treatment in this series of real stories read by celebs such as Natalie Cassidy, Anne Diamond and Nikki Grahame. The audience gets the chance to have their say in the Q and A session, making every night unpredictable.
Body Gossip started as a national writing competition, inviting everyone in the UK to ‘write their story about their body’. The stories that are judged most moving or powerful are performed onstage by well-known people –celebrities, if you will – in order to ‘shout a powerful message of reassurance and solidarity in the battle to support realistic beauty.’ At this Body Gossip event the stars donating their time include Natalie Cassidy (breast augmentation), Nikki Grahame (breast augmentation) and Anne Diamond (gastric bypass). Spotting a pattern yet? Cassidy is almost as well known for her incredible weight loss for a keep-fit video –and subsequent regain – as she is for her twelve year stint as EastEnders’ Sonia.
Surprisingly, it was Nikki Grahame who really stole the show. Best known for her stint in Big Brother, subsequent lads mag photoshoots and bizarre photos in Heat of her on holiday apparently flaunting her post-op bandages under her breasts, Nikki is also a recovering anorexic. If I was inclined to roll my eyes at the appearance of a reality TV star, I was soon proven utterly wrong. Grahame has a naturalness onstage that completely stood out from the rather stage-y readings of her fellow readers – all actors by trade. To watch this talented actress and frankly adorable woman alone is worth the entrance fee.
It is not hard to see where the template for the show comes from – as its creator happily admitted, they want Body Gossip to replicate the success of the Vagina Monologues. Perhaps I’m cynical, but I can’t see that happening. Body Gossip lacks the shock factor, the universality, and most importantly, the joy and genuine fondness for women that the Vagina Monologues has in spades. While I appreciate the stories change from production to production, there was a heavy focus on anorexia, which is after all the most sympathetic of the eating disorders, recognised as it is as an illness. Compulsive overeaters (otherwise known to the world as greedy and disgusting) were pretty much unrepresented – oddly, as at least two of the cast have had gastric bypasses. Some of the writing is offensive in all the wrong ways – ‘if you can eat while all those around you are starving’ sounded less like a rousing cry to women to throw off their diets than a paean to our consumer gods. Indeed, the underlying uncomfortable truth that we in the west consume a disproportionate amount of the world’s food production is never acknowledged.
Perhaps most damning of all is the inherent criticism of just about everybody else. Dieters are condemned in many of the pieces, those who choose to have cosmetic surgery are routinely dismissed as bimbos, and I was horrified in the Q and A session to hear one of the writers suggest that she wants to protect her daughters from ‘blow-up women’. But this is what makes Body Gossip compelling. As a piece of theatre it is boring – unimaginatively staged and humourlessly worthy – but as an unwitting examination of how deep our self-loathing goes, it is deeply unsettling, unmissable viewing.