A Bloody Shambles is an audio drama by Ella Dorman-Gajic, released as part of The Living Record Festival. The audio drama follows Jess, a young woman who has fallen victim to period poverty. 40% of ticket sales go to Bloody Good Period, a charity combating period poverty and taboos around menstruation.
I remember the first time I tried to put a tampon in. It’s one of those go-to stories for an awkward social situation to break the ice or (more fun) make it much worse. I won’t spoil it now – best save it for when we’re all group hugging in a field with vaccines sticking out our limbs. Just picture a Summer in France, a large balcony, a public pool and me sneezing at the wrong time. Back in colder territory, Scotland had me whooping for joy in November 2020 when they became the first country to legislate free period products. Big up Monica Lennon, you absolute legend.
Ella Dorman-Gajic’s A Bloody Shambles was released alongside a wave of brilliant art pushing for the removal of the tampon tax. I understood what the audio drama was trying to do, and for twenty minutes of runtime it’s impressive how visceral some moments felt – The Apprentice semi-final was my absolute favourite. Details like the audible squeaky ladder on the bunkbed and a sock being used as a sanitary pad show how much research and consideration went into writing A Bloody Shambles.
I’ve been left with mixed feelings about this audio drama. It’s like two cats are scrapping in my sack of a brain. The initial sequence felt very familiar: waking to bloody bed sheets and wondering what godly creature you pissed off to deserve this and the subsequent journey to the bathroom praying the mess down south isn’t as dire as you think. Periods are a shared experience for billions around the world and have been a cause for shame, discrimination, community, love and violence, not to mention their biological role in reproduction. Periods are splattered all over the arts. It’s not new or radical, but it is important to keep bringing them up and normalising open conversation. It’s particularly important to turn this conversation to period poverty and those worst affected.
The opening monologue is so classically #relatable it makes us empathise and find humour in Jess whilst also seeing ourselves in the narrative. A Bloody Shambles falls short when it loses this specificity. Its depiction of men is the most frustrating way this detracts from the piece. Roger – the evil stepdad – is boiled down to an ignorant dickhead acting as a plot device to force Jess into the scenario that sets up the narrative. We’re introduced to the second male character as a Manchester United supporter. I remember signing a big ol’ sigh and bracing myself at this point. And shock horror, who’d have guessed it – he’s another ignorant man who’s incapable of perceiving her period as anything more than an inconvenience to himself. There’s a binary fuelled by outdated stereotypes that jostles uncomfortably throughout the script. As a cis woman, I could relate to elements of the binary, but even from my privileged position of inclusion, I felt that a great deal was assumed about the female experience.
I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that the short runtime is what holds A Bloody Shambles back. Characterisation is the casualty it suffers to squeeze such an escalated plot into 20 minutes. Jess is fleshed out with an intriguing edge to her personality. I really enjoyed her internal commentary when confronting Roger, but the other characters come across as over-simplified. It feels more like they’re trying to represent a whole society but with all the compassion stripped out.
A Bloody Shambles is built from lived experiences, but is not one itself. A testimonial might have made details like the fish and chip wrapper hit harder, because I have no doubt these details stem from truth. The script is full of bloody descriptions and lines like “no one is looking, not really,” that work so well in an audio play. When it comes to blood soaking through your jeans, we’re glad when no one is looking, but A Bloody Shambles demands attention and leaves you feeling uncomfortable. A lot like a period, you could say.
A Bloody Shambles ticks all the boxes for me. I adore in issue-based theatre and the way Ella Dorman-Gajic uses comedy that steadily builds to tragedy in order to tackle a heavy subject is one of my favourite forms of storytelling. I am so glad this came across my inbox, because I’m going to keep talking about it and recommending it to people for a long time.
Dorman-Gajic’s play is not an in-depth exploration of period poverty. We only hear the experience of one day of one woman’s life, rather than the multitude of different people period poverty affects and all the different ways it manifests; and if this was a longer form work, especially if it was a stage play, I would fault it for that. However, as a twenty minute audio drama, the narrow focus is perfect. In a short space of time I was able to feel close to Jess, laugh at her wit, and sympathise with her as she struggled; it generated a level of intimacy that made me really care for her distress and want to take action, even if the narrow lens didn’t give me a comprehensive view of the real-world issue.
In fact, the only thing I didn’t like about this play was the times this intimacy was broken. When male characters entered the story their dialogue broke Jess’s extended monologue and made me feel less engaged. All of the male voices felt slightly artificial and alien in a way that sharply contrasted Jess’s groundedness and stilted the tone of the story. Personally, I would have preferred to have listened to a one woman play, so that everything was filtered through Jess’s thoughts and feelings and I could maintain that intense feeling of sympathy all the way through.
Nonetheless, A Bloody Shambles is an outstanding piece of issue-based theatre that articulates lived experience with humour and sensitivity which reaches out and forces the listener to care. Dorman-Gajic shines a light on a grim topic without verging into poverty porn; her subject gets sympathy and respect, and even when the story goes for grotesque-comedy, or straight-up misery, Jess is always shown with humanity, rather than as someone to look down upon. And when it comes to dealing with such a depressing issue, I believe that is the most important thing.
If (like me), you don’t menstruate, it’s easy to think that this play doesn’t concern you and give it a miss in favour of something lighter; but it’s important to engage with as an emotive introduction to the issue, and carry that energy with you outside of the theatre (or your headphones, I guess). Not a lot of people listen to plays like this, especially people who aren’t thinking about the issue to begin with, and even fewer would bother to read a review. The real impact of this play depends on people actively listening, and talking about the issue in their everyday lives, especially those of us who don’t menstruate as we may end up in a position to take action, and you can’t use that power if you don’t understand and don’t care.
Give the play a listen while you can. Use it as a springboard to learn more. And engage others with the issue so we can actually help those who need us.
The piece begins with something that I think is relatable to every person who has periods. Waking up, realising their period is happening and then wondering how bad it is. Has it leaked? Usually, if this has happened, I pop downstairs and sort it out. I put on my favourite pair of sustainable period pants. I go up and sort out my sheets. It’s all sorted in under half an hour, and then I get on with my day.
A Bloody Shambles gives voice to a vastly different experience, one that is experienced by so many across our country. I have heard of period poverty. I have seen the statistics and tried to imagine how it would be, but how can I? This show allows me a small window into that lived experience.
We go into the character’s mind, hear what she thinks. Hear the conversations and debates she has with herself about what to do as she moves from difficult choice to difficult choice. What struck me first was the honesty, the relatability. The need to check out ‘the situation.’ The nerves, shame and secrecy she feels around her period.
Going inside her mind and hearing the decisions she has to make is tough. How quickly she has to turn to unsafe practices. She has to find a pad or tampon alternative in an alley on route to a food bank. The food bank has none left anyway. She contemplates whether she needs to beg. She has very little money left after spending it on shelter the night before.
I love that she included a moment where she interacts with men around her. An example of this is the Mother’s boyfriend who thought she was eating sweets in the bathroom because of the “sweet wrappers” in the bin—showing the lack of education that many people with periods have to rally against in their everyday lives. Feeling the need to explain basic biology to those around them. She embodies the need that so many feel to apologise for that basic biology.
By the end of the show, she has found no solution. She has not been able to start her day. She has not been able to move forward at all. It conveys the frustration and shows me how unnecessary this kind of suffering is. The character has been pushed out of her home and is staying in a hostel. She has enough to worry about, organise and do without worrying about her every move, and whether she will leak through. She feels she has to apologise for it and that she is to blame somehow. Never losing her politeness to external people and denying her pain. Something, unfortunately, a lot of us can relate to.
I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to get this insight. I listened to it through headphones, in my living room. Audio was a great choice of medium for this eye-opening piece as it increased the intimacy—intimate and personal words straight from her mind to mine. I felt a connection to her as she described her period cramps, as I was experiencing mine. It’s not often I get to hear honest stories about periods. Which is deeply disappointing, considering what a big part of life it is for so many.
At the end of the show, there is an announcement about how the ‘tampon tax’ that categorised period products as luxury items, has finally been abolished. I doubt anyone could listen to this and see these products as anything other than profoundly essential.
A Bloody Shambles is running until 21:00 on 22nd February 2021.