Never mind the botox

Four decades on, how have things changed since Spare Tyre produced Baring the Weight? Julie Tomlin finds out

Thursday, 4th April 2019 — By Julie Tomlin

Slimmers of the year Jacui Lofthouse 2019 Clair Chapwell 1979

Jacqui Lofthouse as Miss Slimtrim 1979 in the current production, How Am I Looking Now?

ASKED to revive a play written in 1979 when women were shaping up against yo-yo diets and the industry that spawned them, a Camden playwright was struck both by its optimism and the need to take a red pen to her original script.

Baring the Weight, came about after community director, songwriter and playwright Clair Chapwell read Susie Orbach’s Fat is A Feminist Issue – an advert she placed asking women who were also inspired by the psychotherapist’s ideas about women, food and body image to get in touch received over 100 responses.

All the women had struggled with their weight and eating, but with those who had acting experience Clair developed the play and eventually set up the Spare Tyre Theatre Company.

The play’s message about the psychological and social dimensions of eating disorders and its pushback against the idea that all that was needed was calorie counting and will power struck a nerve.

“We did shows for slimming groups, Weight Watchers’ groups, we went everywhere and toured the country,” says Clair, who in 2017 was asked by current Spare Tyre members to revive the play to mark it 40th anniversary. She agreed, bringing in her company Bolder Events, a company that includes a 65+ group that sings Calypso songs about the politics of age, to update it and create a new piece exploring issues about young women today.

“It’s a very dated little play, after all, it was me at 26, so I cut it and cut it and cut,” says Clair, who adds that she was also struck by the mood of optimism that suffused the play.

Clair Chapwell in the 1979 production of Baring the Weight

“We absolutely thought we could change things. Things seemed more fluid and more possible, and in a way there wasn’t the harshness, and the corporate thing wasn’t there so much.”

Working with choreographer Rosie Litterick, Clair began by holding a series of workshops across Camden, wanting to recreate “the same random process” that led to the creation of Baring The Weight in 1979.

Once the weekly workshops and rehearsals got started at Jackson’s Lane Clair heard conversations about the most “feminist” Botox treatments and labiaplasty that opened her eyes fully to “the horror of what’s going on with this younger generation”.

After one lunch with a group of women she went home and immediately wrote Agency, a key song in the accompanying performance, Extreme Makeover Mum, about women’s experiences today.

“We were completely re-educated by the younger women in the group, staggeringly educated by the horrors that are being visited on them by social media and everything else,” says Clair,

“I write songs quite easily and quite quickly so I went home and wrote this out. It was a chance to get the dichotomy of having it all and completely not having it all.”

This contrast between the two generations of women is evidenced in the show, where the older women are Greenham Common veterans and sing in a choir called Bingo Wings.

“The younger women would say it’s so unfair because you’re so confident with your bodies,” says Clair, who adds that despite these differences, strong friendships were formed: “There were absolutely friendships made across the age groups, it was an interesting thing to watch. It was one of the best things I’ve done.”

•The two plays are being performed at Theatro Technis as part of a double bill called How Am I Looking Now? April 12-14. Susie Orbach will take part in an audience discussion after the final performance.

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