REVIEW: ‘She Wants to be a What?’ at Foyle Pride Festival

Some of the cast of Sole Purpose Productions' 'She Wants to Be A What?'
Some of the cast of Sole Purpose Productions' 'She Wants to Be A What?'

In an ever more diverse world where the divide between left and right-leaning ideologies seems greater than ever, socially fuelled topics like abortion and gay rights have been brought to the forefront and debated at length. One topic however, that still remains taboo for many, even on the left, is transgenderism, with there still being a distinct lack of understanding about the emotional and physical complexities of wanting to change your gender.

A scene from 'She Wants to be a What?' at the Playhouse Theatre in Derry.

A scene from 'She Wants to be a What?' at the Playhouse Theatre in Derry.

It is this important issue which was addressed last Thursday night at the Playhouse with Sole Purpose Productions’ ‘She Wants to be a What?’, the culmination of three shows in association with Foyle Pride and the Greater Shantallow Community Arts.

Written by Berni Kerr and directed by Patricia Byrne, the play focuses on single mother Gwen, who sees herself as an open minded, liberal feminist. With her lifelong friend Maggie, she’s actively involved in a steady succession of protests aimed at putting the world to rights, until something closer to home challenges her hard fought, progressive views. Gwen’s daughter Rachel reveals that she wants to make the transition to being a man, choosing the new name Toby, and it throws her life into a tailspin, as the myriad of questions in relation to this complicated topic begin to rear their head and become too much to handle.

What the play succeeds in doing is making such a complicated issue quite straight forward and compact, streamlining much of the confusion and despair that surrounds many family members’ discovery that someone they love wants to alter their sex. In only an hours run time we really feel that we have went on a journey with Gwen - she acts as our eyes into a still overlooked topic and we learn more about the subject as she does. It is no surprise that the play is as insightful and informative as it is, as it is based on writer Berni Kerr’s own experiences of having her daughter transition to being her son. This reality constantly shines through, with the play not feeling like a lecture but an honest, raw and accurate portrayal of what it actually feels like to go through this complicated experience, from someone who has actually lived through it.

The local cast is very strong with lead Catriona Cunningham shining throughout, imbuing Gwen with a nice balance of humour and pathos. Her colloquial delivery, zippy one liners and easy Derry charm ingratiated her to the audience very quickly, the room immediately liked and cared about her which made her later struggles all the more effecting. Her chemistry with co-lead Maureen Wilkinson (Maggie) is also a strong point with the two actresses real life friendship and rapport being very telling in their easy back and forth in the more comedic scenes and tender and caring in the deeper parts of the tale. The cast is well rounded off by a raft of local talent including seasoned performer Paul O’Doherty and young up and coming actors Joseph O’Hagan and Roma Harvey, both of whom play both sides of Rachel/Toby’s transition. In a very memorable, almost trance like, scene, both sides of this conflicted person mirror each other’s movements on stage, highlighting that they are still the same but simply want to live their life in a different body.

'She Wants to Be a What?' focuses on attitudes towards transgender identity.

'She Wants to Be a What?' focuses on attitudes towards transgender identity.

The play may be slightly broad at times and some of the dialogue a tad on the nose, but the real life, heartfelt experiences of the writer elevate the material to something that is quite moving at times.

The cast are uniformly great and the direction is assured and even handed, this guidance being essential so that the story doesn’t fall into farce, as transgenderism in theatre or film is unfortunately usually parodied or handled poorly. The play, which has now finished its run, tells an important message in a human, relatable way teaching us of the complexities of such a subject whilst also underlining the need for more conversation around it.