The last show I reviewed at fortyfivedownstairs was Peta Hanrahan’s adaptation of A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf in 2019. Watching Climbers, a new work by Elly D’Arcy, feels like a full circle moment – as if I’m reviewing the 2019 production’s younger cousin. Both works explore feminism within a dark academia aesthetic and have a penchant for witty dialogue laden with British cultural references. And they both share similar flaws, in that the feminist discourse put forward feels stuck in the 1920s and 30s.
Climbers takes place at Oxbridge in 1939, but looks to current observations of gendered discrimination and examples of feminist action that are still relatable today. The story follows Rosalind (Meg Taranto) and Lucy (Veronica Pena Negrette) as they experience college life. D’Arcy paints a robust picture of the time and place, and creates endearing characters. The repartee in their dialogue would be at home in a BBC period drama.
However, the instances of gender discrimination are so wound up in 1930s norms and gendered expectations that Climbers doesn’t connect past and present struggles women face, but rather reminds us of what is well and truly known: gender inequity is real, gendered violence happens often and women are punished when they speak out about it. The women students take action in the second act, but it’s left unclear whether it’s effective – D’Arcy focusing on a fallout that similarly struggles to relate to the current status quo, as the consequences the women face are rooted in bygone rules.
There are other teething problems as well. A preference for conversation over narrative progression in act one slows it down to a near halt and the climax of both acts occurs well before they end.
Despite this, the work has a fun and engaging voice. The production is supported by a fantastic creative team similarly developing their craft, meaning it’s relatively easy to get through the 140-minute runtime (interval included). The cast lavish the opportunity to be posh English nepo babies and are most comfortable playing for laughs. Taranto and Sebastian Li stand out in their ability to shift gears during the heavier moments.
The set by Savanna Wegman is ingenuitive, director Monique Marani uses it just as creatively to move the cast between numerous locations and Justin Gardam’s sound design leans into the production’s period TV drama energy.
Hanrahan’s adaptation of A Room of One’s Own was so faithful to a lauded feminist text from the 1920s that it didn’t relate to feminist conversations of today. Climbers is a new, original work, but comes to the same result. In this way its raison d’être feels led more by a love of Oxbridge nostalgia than cross-generational feminist critique.
Climbers by Elly D’Arcy
Director: Monique Marani
Producer and Production Manager: Harry Dowling
Sound Designer: Justin Gardam
Set & Costume Designer: Savanna Wegman
Lighting Designer: Georgie Wolfe
Stage Manager: Kelly Wilson
Assistant Stage Manager: Karen Ng
Intimacy Coordinator: Isabella Vadiveloo
Cast: Meg Taranto, Veronica Pena Negrette, Eddie Orton, Sebastian Li, Charlie Veitch, Tyallah Bullock, Tahlia Jameson, Lotte Beckett, Vitoria Hronopoulous, Milijana Cancar, and Chris Broadstock