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Review: What (is) A Woman (Arcola Theatre)

Review by Rosie Holmes



Andreé Bernard’s one-woman-show is now open at London’s Arcola Theatre. Written, composed and performed by Bernard, What (is) a Woman blurs the line between an autobiographical memoir and work of fiction. Described as a blistering solo musical, the action is set over four decades exploring the life of a self-diagnosed romanceaholic, the men she dates, the acting jobs she gets and the ones she doesn’t.

Beginning with a sex scene, immediately sweeping us up into the character’s dalliance with a man she labels “my tall American”, we then travel back to her teen years at stage school, her first kiss with a man she labels “young man”, her short-lived marriage to “handsome young director” and the other dating hiccups she encounters in the four decades the show covers. Throughout the course of the story, we are also introduced to her old-school and extremely camp agent, Cholmondely and her IVF attempts and devastating miscarriages.


In regards to the performance itself, Bernard is nothing short of mesmerising, floating across the stage, balletically, commanding the audience for most of the show. The way in which Bernard progressively ages her character across the show without so much as a costume change or varying hairdo is a testament to her acting skills. Similarly, she flits between all manner of characters from her northern husband, her dance teacher and many other characters along the way absolutely effortlessly, again testament to her skills of characterisation. In just a quick switch up of posture she becomes a new person entirely.

Where What (is) a Woman sadly falls short is in its attempts to convey the messages in this piece. Having read the blurb and going by the title of the show, I expected a play that examines and discusses the complexities of being a woman. Yet, most of what we uncovered about Bernard’s character was just in relation to the men she was dating. Most of the play centred around the disappointments of the men she encounters, leaving the more poignant experiences of womanhood such as infertility, vulnerability at work are brushed over far too quickly making it difficult to evoke any emotion over them. If the intent for this show was to have it be about the romantic pursuits of a woman, it’s not funny or relatable enough to hit the mark where other shows have, overly relying on humour that just didn’t seem to resonate with most of the audience.


The show is underscored, adding a sense of drama to the proceedings and elevating Bernard’s poetic prose with nine original songs peppered throughout. Though these pleasingly show off Bernard’s skilful vocal technique, unfortunately the numbers prove to be rather jarring, interrupting the storytelling at moments when it is at its best without really furthering any narrative or providing any emotional insight. Clichéd lines such as “When life gives you lemons, then you grab the gin” and an incessant need to rhyme meant the songs felt like unnecessary additions.

Michael Strassen’s direction almost leads us to believe we are in a cabaret hall rather than watching a new musical, with a sparse stage free of props. Lucie Pankhurst’s grand choreography emulates routines I would expect to see in shows like a Chorus Line, and sometimes does well in keeping the fluidity of the show. However, for the most part it doesn’t quite fit with the intimate nature of a one-woman show that is more or less autobiographical.


There is no doubt that Bernard is a wonderful performer. That is reflective in the fact that for the most part, despite the long runtime for a one-woman show, Bernard ensured all eyes were on her.  Her ability to memorise a two-hour filled to the brim with dialogue was an impressive testament to her talents. The biggest problem, however, is that this show doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. With a little more exploration of the darker moments in her life and a little less focus on her disastrous dating life, this could have been a much more effective look at the complexities of womanhood in a modern society. Rather than exploring the subject of What (is) a Woman, this show left me with more questions, most notably what (is) this show meant to be.


What (is) a Woman plays at the Arcola Theatre until 4th May 2024. Tickets and more information can be found here - What (is) a Woman - Arcola Theatre



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