Paradise Now! by Margaret Perry
Bush Theatre December 7th-January 21st
Review by Aisling Towl
Paper Bag - Fiona Apple
A woman sits on a dilapidated sofa, rocking herself gently in the flickering light of the TV. This is Gabriel (Michele Moran), and she looks like she might not have left the house, or the sofa, in days. Her sister, Baby (Carmel Winters), arrives home and the two sit on the sofa eating crisps as Baby complains about her draining retail job. There is a soft intimacy between them as well as weariness, a barely buried pain.
As Fiona Apple laments the longing of the downward slope, of being a mess no one wants to clean up, Gabriel’s character is the poster-girl for a Paper Bag kind of sadness. An acceptance of shit fate scored with wanting more, wanting something you don’t know how to ask for, don’t know quite how to name, but wanting it hard. So hard it hurts, hurts too much to do anything about it.
Immaterial - SOPHIE
When Gabriel befriends Shazia Nichol’s charismatic Alex, she is quickly recruited into Paradise - a Multi-Level Marketing Scheme that sells essential oils. Gabriel’s recruitment scene is equal parts hilarious and painful - the relentless emphasis on ‘community’ and ‘connection’ to a woman visibly struggling without either.
Gabriel soon expands her own ‘Paradise Pack’, recruiting Carla (Ayoola Smart), a twenty-five-year-old aspiring TV presenter/waitress, who she meets at church. Margaret Perry’s brilliant script highlights the religious adjacency of MLMs, the faith-based devotion from its members. Carla and her partner Anthie (Annabel Baldwin) join the Paradise Pack’s team-building night at a bowling alley, where the presence of relative outsiders Anthie and Baby highlight the sheer strangeness of the constant, culty rhetoric-chat the group communicate in.
I thought about choosing Madonna’s Material Girl but SOPHIE’s Immaterial Girl speaks to this idea more exactly. Perry’s script brilliantly excavates how many of the things women want and need are invisible, immaterial: community, self-acceptance, the feeling of being part of something bigger than ourselves. When these are lacking, we are told to find them in £30 essential oils promising to restore ‘balance and happiness, putting us in touch with our ‘essential femininity. “I’ve replaced my self-loathing with the oil!” Laurie cries.
Free Mind - Tems
In one of the funniest sequences of the play (and there were many) Laurie (Rakhee Tharkar) sits on an armchair, dabbing oil from a Paradise bottle into her wrists and temples, then her arms, face, chest, then emptying the whole bottle out onto her body before sliding down the chair onto the floor with a look on her face somewhere between serenity and menace. Her extreme anxiousness on arrival melts away to mental release, momentary freedom. This surreal moment takes on a deep poignancy when we learn more about her character in Act Two.
Annabel Baldwin’s incredible dance sequences, choreographed by Sung Im Her, also cut through the cerebral bleakness of this sticky-sweet world; she moves with urgency and grace. These moments are the most ‘free’ any of the characters seem to be in the play, but even they are abruptly cut short: the music stops and Baldwin thanks her audience - she is in an audition. Laurie gets up off the floor, embarrassed, as the other party guests arrive. Like Tems’ soft and wistful track Free Mind, Paradise Now! questions the things we do in the pursuit of freedom and release - the need to free ourselves, psychologically as well as physically, from the overwhelming pressures of modern life, and all the mixed-messaging of womanhood.
Boss Bitch - Doja Cat
The Paradise Now! conference, event of the year, is all pink cocktails, bright trouser suits and thumping synth-pop. We can feel the walls of the sterile ExCel-centre-type venue closing in.
As Doja Cat’s thumping electro-pop anthem riles up the listener, the Paradise women ripple with excitement and their shaky, new-found ego. There is heady anticipation for the ‘SHE-E-O’s speech as the cracks begin to show in the relationships between the group. When she addresses her troops, or the soldiers of her ‘Fempire’, there is an unshakeable Emperor’s New Clothes feeling which builds to a climax for Gabriel. She has been promoted ahead of even Alex - met with awe and jealousy from the rest of the group.
Moran is transformed from when we met her on the sofa, standing tall in a pink trouser suit and delivering wisdom chopped and screwed from the scriptures to her Paradise Pack. She has gone from Sad Girl to Boss Bitch, she rides the high, but it’s lonely at the top. In the executive lounge, she peers at her reflection in the decorative pool, pulls out a bunch of grapes and begins to eat... and then choke.
Rooting for My Baby - Miley Cyrus
Back in Gabriel and Baby’s flat, bottle upon bottle of Paradise oil roll out of boxes as Baby takes stock. “Tell me I’m stupid/ Tell me I’m useless” begs Gabriel. These systems dupe us, then blame us for the fallout of the dupe and we need this to be congruent - we need someone to tell us so we know it’s real. Baby is still by Gabriel’s side, Anthie still by Carla’s, though both relationships are fraughter than ever. We are reminded of the way women care for each other even despite pain, fuck ups, hurt. We are reminded that so many of the things we spend our lives searching for are already there.
Rooting for my Baby is an outlier on Bangerz - written and produced by Pharrell, it’s sultry darkness and 70s country-blues verses discuss a relationship going through a rough patch, but the singer is still trying, somewhat unrequitedly, to support her love.
There is so much more to write about Paradise Now - so many themes, lines and moments of brilliance I don’t have word count for. Perry’s writing, Jaz Woodcock-Stweart’s direction, Rosie Elnile’s versatile design and a whole host of other brilliant female creative minds tell a story that is full of humanity and truth. All the ugliness and pain of a specifically female fight for survival bursting out of its polished “Everything’s fine!” veneer. We root for every single one of the brilliantly acted characters, despite their questionable decisions, their flaws. The feeling I left with, even with the rage and tragedy of so much of the piece, was one of hope and gladness to be alive.
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Fantasy - Mariah Carey
Normal Girl - SZA