Nicola Cheeseman is Back -dir. by Paul Gittins: Herald Theatre (Aotea Centre) 19 June – 7 July

Nicola Cheeseman is Back is a one-woman show about that one woman’s discovery that time runs as inexorably downhill as her now sagging body — that the big choice to make for anyone of any age, is to make your own choices — and to make them now — and then hang on for dear life. And to enjoy the ride.

Unfortunately it takes a while to make that message plain.

A one-woman show’s a hard thing to pull off, and performer Jodie Rimmer (My Father’s Den, The Strip, Filthy Rich) is given little help from either set or lighting, but she gradually draws us in. But it does take time.

Written by Kathryn Burnett (The Campervan, Mike & Virginia) and delivered by Paul Gittins’s always creative Plumb Theatre crew, the audience on opening night gave her work and Rimmer’s performance a standing ovation.

It did start as bad stand-up, let’s be honest, and then for a while I was afraid I was committed to two hours of an updated version of Roger Hall’s unfathomably popular Middle-Aged Spread — the theatrical equivalent of a three-hour Eagles concert (with guest appearance by Dire Straits!). And then even more worried I was watching Confessions of a Doormat, with which this reviewer found little with which to be sympathetic.

But the music was mercifully much better than that. And there are more layers here than first appeared….

Nicola Cheeseman, our protagonist, has almost blown it, you see. She discovers that the choices made when waiting for life to happen have become what life actually is. So don’t fuck them up.  But she doesn’t give this advice to her daughter.

She discovers that unthinking choices about young love can become life defining. But she doesn’t give this advice to her son.

She sees the old, like herself, slowly become invisible to others, but only discovers too late that she’s ignored this phenomenon herself, and almost missed valuable advice from an elderly loved one who she’d never really seen.

She continually offers advice to others, but never takes it herself. If it’s possible to be self-absorbed after an adult life spent suppressing her selfhood, then this woman is it. As someone once said, “to say I love you, you first need to know how to say the ‘I’.” But what if you’ve abandoned your ‘I’ way back in time and in that morass of duties and obligations and letting others make choices for you. And you then just quietly resent it all.

So it turns out there are layers here that the playwright has offered us. And we have to wonder if a pink vinyl jumpsuit will be enough to save our one woman anti-heroine.

I started writing my notes for this review as my phone battery reached 1%, so simply gathered I had no time to note down what I really thought. Then as my battery tenaciously held on (it’s still signalling 1% now, and still holding on), I wondered if that isn’t a decent metaphor for what those layers reveal: that there is only so much time alive to be yourself, so don’t waste time letting others make rules for you. Get on with being yourself!

It’s not so much about bad choices, but if you’re not careful it’s about making no choices at all — and then seeing that these non-choices come to define you, imprisoning you in obligations, in rules and duties set by others, instead of enabling a life chosen by yourself, with your own rules – one ruled by the enthusiasms you (thought you) once had.

Sure, this defines many folk. Too many. By the time they wake up in middle age and decide it’s time to ‘find themselves’ they discover instead there is no longer a self to find. That they abandoned it long ago for the ‘not yet’ or the ‘never mind’ or the ‘didn’t really matter,’ and just continue to grow smaller as their light slowly goes out.

It’s no accident that music is the way she begins unearthing her true self. Music giving the very clue to who we are. For her it’s teenage music, true, but she has to go back there first to unearth whatever of her self is left.

Lou Reed sings of those with “an all-consuming fire” who rage as they discover that “you can’t be Shakespeare and you can’t be Joyce/So what is left instead?” But what about the tragedy of those who long ago elected to put out their own flame. What of them?

Is it ever too late “to start at the beginning again”? That’s what Nicola Cheeseman is trying to discover as she struggles to escape her quotidian round and rock out as she must.

And we can’t help but be there with her to see if she makes it.


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Nicola Cheesman is Back is written by Kathryn Burnett, and directed by Paul Gittins.

A Plumb Theatre production.

Interview here.

Tickets here.