Zoey Barnes and Clementine Bogg-Hargroves are quickly becoming the best double act in Manchester’s theatre scene. After the success of Skank at the GM Fringe, the couple’s new collaboration, Austen Power, showcases Barnes’ debut as a writer. And what an impressive debut this piece is!
It tells of two sisters who inherit an independent, family bookshop from their father. Selene (Zoey Barnes) takes over management of the shop, worrying about their finances, and struggling to compete with Amazon and Waterstones. Ellie (Clementine Bogg-Hargroves) prefers to make money by selling her dirty underwear online. “I could get 50 quid for a skid mark”, she proudly declares.
An amusing dynamic is created between the two sisters. Selene is the serious sister, whilst Ellie is the irritating distraction. Both are brilliantly funny, but underlying the comedy, there is a serious undertone. It slowly becomes apparent that Selene suffers from an eating disorder. A poignant scene occurs as Selene tries to force herself to eat a small piece of rye bread. This is a prolonged, painfully difficult scene to watch, as she wills herself to swallow the food. Deliberately uncomfortable, Barnes delivers a serious message as you absorb the gravity of this scene.
Oblivious to her sister’s eating disorder, Ellie uses insults to encourage Selene to stop skipping lunch. “You look like a dying praying mantis“. However, when Selene’s condition is revealed, she supports her sister, nursing her back to full health. This is a play that depicts the bitchy, squabbling side of sisterhood, alongside the heartfelt connection between siblings. There are fights and arguments, alongside emotional phone conversations. Through this, Austen Power exquisitely renders the ordinary ups and downs of family relationships.
Barnes’ script constructs two wonderfully complex characters and is packed with hilarious dialogue. Ellie is a character with a childish personality, constantly vying for attention. If she was travelling in a car, she would repeatedly ask “Are we there yet?”. She has a flirtatious, Skank-like persona, sleeping with customers and crudely discussing her sex life. Besides this, she also clearly cares for her sister, emerging as a mother figure throughout the play.
It is in the characterisation of Selene that Barnes shows her talent as a writer and performer. She delicately approaches the grave matter of eating disorders, without the play becoming morose. Selene’s slow realisation that something is wrong, and her admittance that she needs help, is handled with respect and care.
Wickedly funny, but with heartfelt poignancy, Austen Power proves that Barnes and Bogg-Hargroves are supremely talented writers and performers. They bounce off each other, creating a dynamic relationship between two sisters that is genuinely joyful to watch. The pair are rapidly establishing themselves as a comedic force to be reckoned with.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Austen Power is heading to the Edinburgh’s Free Fringe from 14th – 24th August, at Bar Bados. You can also donate to their crowdfunding page.