22nd September, 2015
‘As for what came next, things unspoken and untold until now, it happened like this…’
Once upon a time fairy tales weren’t meant just for children and neither is Cordelia Lynn’s Royal Court debut play, ‘Lela & Co’. It’s like a subversive 90 minutes take on a traditional fairy story. We join Lela (Katie West) in her mind; a surreal world of neon lights, leather furniture, plush red curtains and black and white floor. Lela is dressed in a tutu, swings in her rattan chair, speaking in a thick Yorkshire accent.
At first, Lela’s monologue is lyrical and excitable as she introduces us to her childhood, when she lived with sisters, Em and Elle, together with her parents and grandmother. Lela warns us, she will be telling ‘the whole truth’ and as she does, her narrative darkens. When her sister Elle marries a man called Jay, the 15-year-old Lela is ‘married’ off on one of his ‘business associates’, and taken abroad to an unnamed country. Lela is abused by her husband, and then in her innocence, she is `passed on’ from hand to hand passed onto his friends as a sex slave, finally sold to anyone willing to pay. Her world contracts rapidly until it is the size of a dirty mattress. In one moment of the darkest humour, their marital relationship is presented as if it was a business: Lela & Co. Concurrent with this are ethnic tensions which result in armed struggle, bombings, shootings and invasions. War might be bad for business, but Lela’s husband has learnt to exploit the needs of soldiers, prostituting his wife and making money.
Katie West plays Lela with relentless candour, delivering long monologues effortlessly and commanding the whole stage with her small but powerful presence. Her monologue is corrupted by male intervention to reflect the conflict and tension at the heart of the story. At times, West’s infantile, passive delivery does become weary, thereby undermining sympathy for the young girl’s harrowing experiences in sex trafficking. But she also revels in the power to control.
David Mumeni appears, a gold-suited figure breaks the monologue with a series of amoral male characters (father, husband, and the foreign soldier, sent to keep the peace, who sympathises with her plight but takes advantage of her anyway.) They are the male sprites from Grimms Fairy who want to drown her out, and who constantly correct and doubt her version of events. The menace of abusive male entitlement would have been far more effective as mere voice of control rather than a physical presence.
Ana Inés Jabares Pita’s stage design with Oliver Fenwick’ lighting promotes Lela’s naivety. The set is a 70s television billing where she is the star: LELA is in neon capital letters above her. The red velvet curtains in the background and tutu costumes mimic a cute – pink innocence belie the much darker events that follow.
Jude Christian’s production avoids portraying merely gratuitous sex scenes. The middle of the show takes place in total darkness; with the narrative continuing with pained descriptions of Lela’s rape and beating. The result is only disturbing in the knowledge of what transpires especially with recent news coverage of young girls whose abuse have hit the headlines in Bradford, High Wycombe and indeed, worldwide where women have been violated and used as weapons of war. It should be discomfiting and it doesn’t. Sadly, the upbeat tone and candy floss machine feel too contrived to enhance the drama rather than a true reflection of this unfortunate victim’s emotions. Whilst I wasn’t enamoured by the play as a whole, we are left with the knowledge that Lela’s narrative is a universal tale of commodification and degradation of women by men. What is missing is a sustained air of insecurity that arises from threat and the fear engendered by anticipated violence.
Whilst Lela’s suffering is predictable and unavoidable, the production tries too hard to present the bleak context of the text.