What it's like to spend 90 minutes in the women's loo of a thumping nightclub

Powder Room portrays, in an interesting way, young women desperately trying to have a good time while actually having a miserable one

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

Powder Room

15, Nationwide

Powder Room is a small British film all about women and starring only women — boo-hoo, men; my heart bleeds for you all — yet it is almost entirely set in a nightclub, so whether you enjoy this film may depend on how willing you are to spend 90 minutes in such a club along with all that thumping music and the flashing lights and the scrabbling to get to the bar. As a rule, this is how I’d feel about such a prospect: I’d rather shoot myself in the head. However, I accept this doesn’t hold true for everyone and, from what I’ve learned over the years, I suspect it doesn’t hold true for most Spectator readers, who are out clubbing until all hours most nights of the week. Also, if you can put up with the thumping and the flashing and the scrabbling, you’ll find this is quite a neat take on how women talk and act plus it confirms what I have always thought: a ‘good night out’ is usually anything but, and you’d have been better off staying in to watch Masterchef.

This is an adaptation of a 2009 stage play, first successfully performed in Edinburgh, and written by Rachel Hirons. The original title was When Women Wee, which seems rather unfortunate, but I can enlighten you further, for no extra charge: more often as we age until we are getting up once, twice, even three times a night, annoyingly. This is set in that nightclub and, more specifically, in the ladies toilet as our six main characters come, go, hug, row, talk, fight, take drugs, eavesdrop, throw up, and so on, all while the music thumps. (There is no respite, even in the loo.) It has, rather inevitably, been described as ‘a British Bridesmaids’, just as any female-driven comedy-drama now is, although if you think Bridesmaids sparked a revolution, you would be mistaken. In fact, a recent study showed that female representation in popular films is at its lowest level in five years, which is why my heart doesn’t bleed for men in the slightest. (I was only pretending above.)

Sheridan-Smith-and-Jaime-WinstoneAll girls together: Sheridan Smith (Sam) and Jaime Winstone (Chanel, the slag)

Most blissfully, Powder Room stars Sheridan Smith, an actress whom I would follow to the ends of the earth and, if it turned out to be flat, would happily fall off it with her. She is gorgeously talented, can emotionally convince in anything from sitcoms to Hedda Gabler, has a sensationally dirty laugh, and gives off such warmth some are saying she’s the ‘new Julie Walters’, although I wouldn’t want to put my name to that as I’d worry about what would happen to the ‘old Julie Walters’. Put out with the bins? Turned into a hatstand?

Ms Smith plays Sam. Sam is not having a great time, generally. She’s stuck in a dead-end job, has been dumped by her boyfriend and lacks confidence. Still, things are looking up. It’s Friday night and she’s arranged to meet an old school friend, whom she rediscovered on Facebook, in a club, and it’s going to be great. The friend, Michelle (Kate Nash), is now a fashion blogger living in Paris and arrives, rather inexplicably, with her friend Jess (Oona Chaplin), who is French and also a glamorous fashionista. Sam is so intimidated by their tales of swish parties and photo shoots and fancy lovers, and made to feel so pathetic she fabricates a more sophisticated life for herself. She’s a lawyer, she says. She has a lovely boyfriend, she says. Life’s perfect, she says. Complicated, but made even more so when three mates from her usual crowd — Chanel (Jaime Winstone), Saskia (Sarah Hoare), Paige (Riann Steele) — turn up, and she has to keep the two sets of friends apart, or be exposed for what she actually is.

Directed by M.J. Delaney — her first feature — this is a refreshing and interesting film, with some caveats. Due to the small budget, it feels less like film, and more like a play filmed. The toilet set-up, which frequently involves people just missing each other, is a farcical contrivance you simply have to buy, or you’ll go mad. And the characters do tend to embody female stereotypes — the snotty, bitchy ones (Michelle and Jess), the slag (Chanel), the dippy one (Paige), and so on — which make them less interesting than they might have been. But as the evening spirals dangerously out of control, taking in drunkenness and shagging and tripping and a bloodied nose, it does so with great energy as well as some genuinely funny female moments. The message, which is all about being true to yourself, is nothing new, but its portrayal of young women desperately trying to have a good time while actually having a miserable time isn’t something I can remember seeing before, and it feels emotionally right. Plus, it’s moving, Ms Smith is brilliant, and there are no men to speak of, which doesn’t make my heart bleed. At all.

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  • M.Richardson

    Great review Deborah . . I agree with everything you say in praise of the lovely Sheridan Smith! Such a versatile, talented actress . . she makes every character she plays, so believable, and adds so much to every production she appears in – – whether it’s films, TV, or theatre. Good luck to all the excellent cast in Powder Room!

  • Jimmy

    I think men are over-represented in movies because they are more engaging for both male and female audiences. Whereas films dominated by female characters tend to only appeal to other women. When it comes to action/adventure films, men are more physically capable in their roles which allows for more intense and demanding set pieces. In thriller/horror type movies the presence of a strong male character is intimidating for both men and women. Men are almost never engaged when watching a film involving a character being threatened by another woman because we do not generally fear women. It is hard to find a woman a threat and so there is not the same sense of tension for us when watching these films. And men are over represented in comedy films because they are simply funnier. Male comedic actors (and stand up comedians) appeal to men and women. I don’t know how you quantify ‘funny’ but they seem to get the loudest laughs and fill the most theatres. The only entertaining female characters in movies I’ve seen have been those who mimic traditional male behaviour. Since you mentioned it, the only funny character in Bridesmaids for instance was Melissa McCarthy as she played a butch, masculine role in that film.