At the Theatre

Rosemary Hill

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Chris Larner’s comedy The Frida Kahlo of Penge West had its first performance last June at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in Islington, where the mere mention of Penge no doubt guaranteed a quick, if cheap laugh. All the braver of him then to take the play into the lion’s mouth by putting it on at the Bridge House Theatre in Penge High Street, that defiantly hipster-free part of southeast London where, as one of his characters puts it, ‘London was sick over Kent.’

Luckily the play, which runs until 23 November, is very funny. The story of two women trying to put on a one-woman play about Frida Kahlo in whom neither of them is really interested, it ranges up and down the comic scale from slapstick to satire. Olivia Scott-Taylor and Cecily Nash play the friends from university days re-meeting a few years on. They are a familiar pair: Zoe the clever mousy one hoping to get into publishing and Ruth, the loud, demanding, egomaniac actor who is going to be a star because she’s worth it, but is meanwhile working in the RSC box office, sleeping on Zoe’s sofa and snogging the man Zoe is in love with.

We know the whirligig of time will bring in his revenges; it is how not why that keeps the action bowling on. Scott-Taylor and Nash are perfectly in tune as the wayward halves of a pantomime horse of a friendship. Each plays up to type (never over the top of it), in roles that demand both broad physical comedy and subtle reactive playing. Often, and inevitably given the subject, eyebrows speak louder than words. By the end you like both characters in spite of themselves. In between, some large questions about feminism, acting and publishing are allowed to drift past while some more specific ones linger in the mind. Was Frida Kahlo actually any good or just a minimally talented narcissist who became an icon for other narcissists? And why are there dinosaurs in Crystal Palace Park? The set is a miracle of witty concision and the comedy monobrow on elastic should get a show of its own.