The urge to write was “like someone pulling my hair”, says Monica Dolan. It has proved a productive tug: a familiar face of British TV and film, the actor’s first play, The B*easts, is now debuting at the Fringe. A one-woman show, she’s also performing it – the first time she’s acted here too. No pressure then.
“It’s very frightening, writing!” she says, although she'd wanted to do it for a very long time. “It’s like someone nagging you all the time. I thought, this is getting silly, I’ve got lots of ideas, I’ve got to write some of these.”
There’s a big epic play stuck in a drawer somewhere, but this one-woman show format is a little more Edinburgh-friendly. Still, going solo brings its own challenges. She’s worried about “keeping the energy level of the whole piece up".
But Dolan is a veteran performer – on stage, she’s been a regular with the RSC including playing opposite Ian McKellen in King Lear. On screen, she won a Bafta for her portrayal of Rosemary West in Appropriate Adult, and has recently been seen in W1A, Witness for the Prosecution, Pride, and The Falling.
“I keep thinking, I did Jane Eyre with Shared Experience, and that was two and three quarter hours with loads of running! Surely it can’t be more demanding than that? But I suppose it’s just me…”
There is, I suggest, a pleasing directness in just one performer talking to an audience. “That’s what I’m really looking forward to,” she agrees. “I’ve always been very taken with that directness. I definitely wanted it to be a storytelling piece.”
What exactly the story is, I’m not at liberty to say – there’s a reveal halfway I’ve promised not to give away. Dolan plays a psychiatrist, recounting a case involving a young girl. It allows her to circle around some big, chewy topics: the sexualisation of children, the impact of sexting and internet porn, as well as the more old-fashioned pressures from the media on young women to look a certain way.
“I think it’s very difficult for young women now,” says Dolan, as we discuss the impact of social media and selfie culture. “My friend Emma Fielding posted a picture [on Facebook] of us in the Evening Standard when we were in our twenties, and she said ‘Do you remember – we didn’t care what we looked like?’ And look at everyone now. You’re measuring yourself all the time.”
The initial spur for the show was seeing a strange statue when she was on a spa break. Looming over the pool was the bust of a girl, tiny except for an enormous chest. It got her thinking about the strange expectations we have of female bodies.
Walking around town, I can’t help thinking of all the mannequins around us with tiny figures—jutting hip bones, child-sized waists—yet vast boobs. That statue might have been an extreme example, but we’re surrounded by deeply improbable images of youthful yet sexualised femininity all the time. “Yes that’s true,” Dolan says. “It’s an odd combination – it’s a total freak of nature actually.”
It was the impact of such expectations on young girls she was particularly worried about. Dolan’s been talking to teachers about how they’re having to educate pupils in the dangers of sharing indecent images, as well as chatting to a psychotherapist friend about the number of young people they’re starting to see with issues around internet porn.
“He said we’ve got a really, really big problem and people aren’t realising the scale of it, in terms of young people’s sexual health and the images they’re [seeing], quite violently sexual images,” she recalls. “They’re discovering that part of themselves outside of the context of any intimacy.”
Still, every generation has their own moral panic around sex and sexualisation, especially in relation to modern technology – don’t they? Dolan doesn’t want to sensationalise the issue. She specifically made her narrator a ‘neutral’ character, “so she can lay out the whole story and it’s basically for the audience to decide… I wouldn’t want anyone to panic, but it’s an interesting thing to talk about.”
Dolan has been visiting the Fringe since she was young—“I used to go with my brother and his friends, we’d go camping and get the bus in”—but this is the first time she’s performed. It’s long been an ambition: “It’s an incredible atmosphere in Edinburgh, it’s not like anything else, there’s just so much performance energy. I love it. But I’ve never done the full month. When I tell people I’m going to do Edinburgh, this look comes over their face…” She laughs, before adding: “It's like they know something that I don’t know and I can only discover it when I get there.” Don't worry Monica, you will.