Herself – London Film Festival

Written by Clare Dunne

Directed by Phillipa Lloyd

Rating: 3 out of 5.

From the insipid musical diabetes which is Mamma Mia! To the politically ambiguous The Iron Lady, film and theatre director Phyllida Lloyd is nothing if not versatile. Seeking to avoid the large scale filmmaking ventures of the past, Lloyd’s release of Herself entrusts itself to the daily exhaustion women, and mothers face daily in their efforts to maintain dignity and independence.

Lloyd crafts precisely what her intentions were – continuing to tell authentic stories about, and starring women. Written and starring Clare Dunne, Herself centres on the struggles working-class single-mothers undertake to rebuild their lives, in this case following an abusive relationship. Sandra works every hour the lord gives her, and then some as she cares for her daughters. A chance encounter working for an old family friend leads to a series of events in which she can build a home, a safe home away from her ex Gary, but it has to be done quickly, silently and away from authoritative eyes.

Herself has something more profound in inspiration than a sure-fire ‘hit’ at the box-office. The integral reason for the success of the film is the stitching together of a psychological rebuilding – not of the physical home, but the metaphorical work Sandra puts into herself. Dunne’s script is authentic in the depiction of abuse as intense, but not oversaturated or obscene. Now, this isn’t to shy from the brutality of domestic violence, but rather to reaffirm that Sandra is not only her abusive relationship with Gary. That she is more than her suffering and the repetition of the singular event the audience sees is enough to reinforce the damage unfurling itself mentally, but the journey she goes on is the real focus.

Herein lies the facile issues of a tremendously well-performed film. The volatility and earthen nature of the script are dampened by less grounded side-roles and decisions. Not seeking doom and gloom, stories of those who have left abusive relationships needn’t centre themselves in misery, but Herself stumbles into a balancing issue as the supporting cast feel less stable, less investable. Pleasant and punchy Aido is indeed brought to life by Conleth Hill’s bouncy charm, but he and Harriet Walter’s Peggy just can’t find their place in the narrative outside of being providers.

Herself is at its most successful when developing the relationship Sandra has with her children, in no small part down to the fabulous performances from Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann who sell their adoration for their mother, and understanding of the events surrounding them with radiant authenticity. The relationships they build with Danne should play a larger part in the film, rather than equal footing to the branching plot threads. 

Character framing is usually Lloyd’s masterstroke with theatre, particularly capturing the precise moment of climax in an emotional transition. The understanding of openly demonstrating Sandra at her lowest, and eventual recovery, is something which Lloyd’s filmmaking should excel at doing, as Dunne is certainly bringing her all.

Aesthetically, however, Herself is messy. The opposing sides of light and darkness find no compromise as it lurches between aspirational and up-beat to a gritty, grounded film. The infusions of musical interludes demonstrate the imbalance best, where the epilogue captures the emotions Sandra feels without need for dialogue, using only lighting and song stand starkly to the cover of Titanium as the house develops makes for a soppy tv-advert, stripping the autonomy and dignity the film has been building.

Demonstrating the frustrations of a broken, but a desperate system, not of villains or uncouth social workers but people working to the bone with minimal resources and a lack of coherent or organised sympathy. Dunne’s script understands the system better than most in a frankly honest way, seeking not to point the finger at those other than the abuser.

So no, Herself isn’t necessarily revolutionising cinematic depictions but it is stirring the right emotions to flicker people into realising the vital nature of these narratives. It hinges on performances, rather than writing or direction, and on this, it can steadily rely on the brilliance of Dunne’s performance.

Herself has been released in select cinemas

Mamma Mia! – The Playhouse, Edinburgh

Music & Lyrics by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus

Book by Catherine Johnson

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Choreography by Anthony Van Laast

Runs at Edinburgh Playhouse until September 28th

Well, my, my, my – just how much we missed you. The returning champion of the jukebox musical, Mamma Mia! brings the Grecian sun, drama and sensation to those Autumnal nights in Edinburgh.

We know the story, you know the story, we most likely all saw the movie with a few vinos – but for the unfortunate few who haven’t… Sophie, the bride to be, has an issue. Rather than walking down the aisle with the mother who has been raising her, Sophie turns to seek out her father – a person her mother has kept secret. Narrowing it down to one of three men, she decides to invite all of them to the wedding, what on earth could go wrong? It’s a story of redemptive love, carving your path – but vitally, a tribute to the music of ABBA and realisation of respecting what, or who, you have.

Now, we would be remiss in not extending praise of the highest honour to the powerhouse duo of two incredible women – and we don’t mean Donna or Sophie. No, the real marker of Mamma Mia! lies in capturing the dynamic duo of Tanya and Rosie. Helen Anker and Nicky Swift propel the production from the moment their timing and glorious harmonies showcase for the number Chiquitita. Never has such a reassurance of quality been in safer hands, from a number which, while enjoyable, never sits in the ABBA pantheon to the esteem of Winner Takes It All or S.O.S

And fellas, please remain calm during Does Your Mother Know – you may find it hard to do so, but please keep your ‘standing ovations’ to yourselves, no matter how fantastic Anker is as Tanya.

Never one to stand in shadow, Sharon Sexton’s Donna refuses to allow her friends to have all the fun. Her Donna is fiery, animated and thankfully, keeps Sexton’s Irish accent making for one hell of a formidable woman. It isn’t though until The Winner Takes It All that Sexton strides to the front of the cast, nailing every note, maintaining clarity and gut-wrenching emotion. It’s easy to throw Donna’s character into the comedic pit, but Sexton, with Nikki Davis Jone’s resident direction, captures the mother, as well as the free spirit. Touching, her rendition of Slipping Through My Fingers will stir profound emotions to offset the humour we’ve been experiencing thus far. 

Sadly, there is a minor complication with an otherwise perfect production – it is, however, a subjective one. An exquisite soprano, Emma Mullen’s Sophie can reach peak notes, but wavers when numbers require a deeper tone, especially troublesome with the weaker sound design drowning out the cast in the opening half. Her Sophie feels closer at home in the halls of Downton, than the sun of the Greek islands. Her movements are stiff, peculiar as her dance routines are often flowing. This touring production has a Sophie who feels a tad more neurotic, less like the character is meant to be with stiff – jerking actions in her hands or expression.

The ladies cannot have all the fun though, as our three leading men don their glitter, shoulder-pads and leave a few top buttons off to raise the roof. Rob Fowler, Daniel Crowder and Jamie Kenna offer such joy to the audience in their roles as Sam, Harry and Bill, but Fowler’s vocal ability is sensational – rivalling Sexton for solo’s which raise hairs as they do cheers. Together with Swift’s Rosie, Kenna gains the audiences favour for his comedic subtlety, never stretching himself into caricature.

The cast, particularly in large numbers such as Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! or Voulez-Vous prove their merit, courtesy of touring dance captain Robert Knight, Anthony Van Laast’s original choreography maintains its sharp intensity.

When theatre is this energetic, a pure euphoric sense of enjoyment washes over. Where cares, troubles and the irritations of day-to-day life get left behind as you strut, sing, wiggle them shoulders and let loose. Mamma Mia! will never be known for it’s diverse or rich narrative, but what it will always be is a testament to how solid vocals, excellent composition and a mother-load of hip thrusts can transform even the miserable into dancing queens for one evening.

Tickets Available from ATG Tickets for Edinburgh Playhouse: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/mamma-mia/edinburgh-playhouse/