Theatre is an exciting space where all kinds of stories can be told, but it can be a little frustrating sometimes to see the same tropes about women’s reproductive abilities played out again and again. Thankfully, The Woman and the Car is a long overdue play where female characters actually have agency to drive the story, and to live the kind of independent life they want, on their terms.
Mark Langham’s script is loosely based on the real life story of Dorothy Levitt, a woman who liked to go fast and finish first. A fascinating Google search reveals she was a pioneer of female independence and female motoring, being the first woman to compete in several racing car events. She also wrote a book in 1909, which, aside from empowering women to drive, conceptualised nifty ideas such as the rear-view mirror. For a woman of such incredible achievement and historical significance, why haven’t we heard more about her?
After a racy, adrenaline-fulled start, where Levitt guns it at the wheel at one of her motor racing events, Langham’s script eschews any comparisons to Days of Thunder, and instead, takes us on a psychological journey of Levitt, what inspired her, motivated her, and what drove her up the wall when people in her life did not want to stay in their lane. In the play she interacts with two key figures; her married lover, Selwyn Edge (Alexander Spinks), the man credited with jump-starting her career, and their irritating-but-tolerable neighbour, Bella (Zoe Crawford), a huntress of tigers who tenderly-but-stealthily makes her romantic feelings known to Levitt. During the course of 70-minutes they compete for a serious long term relationship with Levitt, both making desperate claims on what they can offer (A successful career! A family! A life of comfort!) Who could blame anyone for falling in love with her, gay or straight? She has spark, she has grit, but she also has raw, unapologetic vulnerability, born from her own vices (addiction to alcohol and painkillers) spurned by one-too-many accidents around the track, some particularly devastating and horrific.
Lib Campbell is marvellous as Levitt, carrying herself with the kind of gutsy authority she showed in Labyrinth where she also wore the pants in a boys’ club role. Here, the attitude is a little more provocative, a steely desire to push the limits of speed and retain the right to desire all the things she wants on her terms. She is very much a sensual, sexual being with passion, but won’t waste time writing a ‘how-to’ book to profit her lover’s situation, and she certainly doesn’t want to be ‘looked after’ either, caged in someone else’s domestic prism. She wants, and is an advocate for, independence. As she so aptly puts it, ‘my morals are not immoral, they are MY morals’.
Campbell and Crawford have wonderful chemistry like two screen legends from a bygone era, with perfect comedic timing as they navigate the awkward territory of sharing a first kiss. Incidentally, while lesbian-themes are noticeably absent or repressed from the library of classic literature, they are well and truly described in wonderful books such as The Red Leather Diary by Lily Koppel, which documents the real life story of Florence Wolfson, a brilliant, vivacious socialite from the 1930s full of literary and artistic passion. Such open and curious sexual exploration was not uncommon, but not exactly accepted as mainstream either. No matter, Bella chooses to live her life in her own way, and does not relent on making her feelings known to Levitt.
Edge is the irritating, all-too-rational boyfriend we’d all like to slap, coming and going as he pleases in Levitt’s apartment, enjoying her body and her company, yet full of dismissiveness and jokes whenever Levitt wants to engage in a more serious conversation. Though affectionate and very attractive to Levitt, his feelings never feel entirely genuine, or real; his motives may be well intended, but, as Levitt shrewdly observes, manufactured for his own benefit. In short, she won’t be anyone’s trophy wife, thank you very much.
Director Cam Turnbull does a superb job steering this trio around the racetrack of their glittering-but-ultimately gloomy existence, deftly shifting gears, doing laps around the same issues again and again til the point is well and truly driven home. It’s a fine tuned, calibrated effort from Ship’s Cat Theatre Company to deliver on their mantra of female-centric stories with laughter to connect, create empathy and exact change.
The Woman and the Car is playing at 107 Redfern until 18 December. For tickets and showtimes go to https://www.shipscattheatreco.com/
Image credit: Clare Hawley