Down to Zero at Alphabetti and menopause and me

I am peri-menopausal. What does this mean? Well, while I am not yet in the throes of full-blown menopause, it’s certainly in the post.

How do I know? For a start, a year ago, my periods went crazy. Never the most fun – I’ve always struggled with the full range of horrors a uterus can chuck at you – they now threw wild unpredictability into the mix, arriving without notice on a gusset-flooding crimson tide that no euphemistically pretty ‘feminine hygiene’ protection could withstand, disappearing at a whim, or hanging around in an inconvenient balsamic vinegar drizzle that means you’re never completely on or off, your favourite pants are regularly ruined and you always have to carry supplies in your handbag. (You can imagine how this Russian roulette affects me given a chunk of my job is sitting through plays. You can tell most plays, like most films, are written and directed by men*, since few of them take into account the demands of a bladder wrecked by age or childbirth or how hard it is to concentrate on some wordy theatrical masterpiece when you’re more worried about the drama happening in your knickers than what’s onstage.)

Always prone to flushing, my face now goes red at the least change of temperature – external of internal – so I regularly look like I’m three wines in at the start of the night. My bladder is less ‘sensitive’, more occasionally outright hysterical. My moods are unpredictable, my sleep – never great – is utterly wrecked and I am epically tired all of the time. ALL OF THE TIME. Literally, every single moment of my life. It is, I can tell you, enormous fun. It is also enormously common. And yet, it’s so rarely talked about.

[*I should stress, before I go further, that all my comments here relate solely to cisgender men and women. I’m not qualified – nor would I presume – to speak on the trans or NB experience, which I can only imagine throws up even more complicated physical and emotional issues, especially given the current toxic climate, and upon which the harmful curtain of silence is likely even more damaging].

Menopause is having a bit of a moment, it’s true. There’s that speech in Fleabag. One of the morning TV shows did a whole week on it (a whole week! On an issue that will affect half the population. Truly, we live in blessed times.) But when it comes to daily life, we’re remarkably reluctant to talk about it, and that self-imposed ignorance comes with a cost. It’s a bit of a shock when you’ve been promised a period-free post-menopause to discover that your body throws its own closing down sale first, in which everything must go, including, apparently, the entire contents of your uterus. And yet, when I mentioned this to older female friends, they all just nodded sagely and said, oh, yeah, that happens. Well, hello, then, a little heads up might have been nice.

It’s an issue compounded in the arts, where older women are too often invisible or actively erased, and female experience is so often only shown through the lens of a male writer or director. Sure, we have our age icons, those women who seem to move through the process effortlessly and without any impact on their careers – Judi Dench isn’t begging for roles any time soon, I’m guessing – but too often the old First Wives Club quote still stands, that the only three ages for women are babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. Theatre is all too ready to explore the myriad messiness of men, but shies away from giving women the equivalent interiority and complexity.

It was exciting, then, to be invited to see a night of women-centred theatre that talked openly about menopause at Alphabetti, which is fast becoming one of my favourite Newcastle haunts. Lizi Patch’s Down to Zero isn’t a play about menopause, per se, but it does centre on a menopausal woman, and is rare in recognising that while menopause can be utterly derailing, life doesn’t get put on pause while it’s happening, so you have to keep dealing with all the other shit as well.

It’s a smartly written, if unadventurous, production – only an hour long, too, which is considerate for all our middle aged bladders (though bold, I thought, to have a play aimed at women of a certain age having a soundtrack of lapping water (it’s set on a boat.) I wanted to pee five minutes in…) (Read my review here.)

In some ways more interesting were the response pieces afterwards, part of a series of works commissioned around the main show. I’m always in two minds about the idea of reaction pieces. I understand the reasoning behind them: they give artists a chance to try out shorter, less structured pieces of work in a low-risk environment, they give audiences a chance to experience things they might not have sought out, and they are a boost for the venue, since they create an interval where people will hopefully buy drinks, which are the lifeblood boost to coffers that venues like Alphabetti needs. But all of that has to be weighed against my pressing desire to be at home on the sofa watching Brooklyn 99 (Because I am TIRED ALL OF THE TIME. Did I mention that?)

But I am glad I stayed, as I really liked the reaction pieces last night, both of which were pleasingly short and compact, so I didn’t feel like my night was unnecessarily dragged out.

Poet Degna Stone’s Probably was a monologue about getting older that smartly addressed what it’s like to feel your chances running out, to doubt your past decisions and worry about your future, as well as what it’s like living as a Black woman in a world where white supremacy seems again in ascendancy, to literally worry yourself sick about politics and the planet.

Beccy Owen’s Fanny Magnet couldn’t have been more different, but both pieces drew audible sounds of recognition from the audience. There was slightly more audience interaction than I’m keen on – please, God, don’t make me sing at these things – but it was a warm and funny look at how openness and communication can lessen the burden of menopause.

The show runs till 29th June at Alphabetti (response pieces Tues-Friday). It’s Pay What You Feel, too, so you can get a night of theatre for a bargain price. Why not pop along?

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