Pickle Jar, written and performed by Maddie Rice, received some excellent reviews for its run in Edinburgh. Now performing at the Soho Theatre in London, it certainly strikes a particular chord in the current zeitgeist, looking at issues of mental health and sexual consent, both in the adult world and in the convoluted and screaming melodrama that is adolescence. However it feels strangely as though these issues are not the beating heart of the piece but rather they are extraneous devices, a shorthand for currency and weight but really existing only as floatation tools for the comedy. It feels more as though the aim of this piece is to strike gold with a one-woman show than to explore any issues, and the narrative of teenage rape and suicide sits louring on the periphery whilst a gag about mindfully eating a raisin takes centre stage.
Pickle Jar is a one woman comedy show, with a dorky and sexually inept central character – already a format that is starting to feel a little outmoded and which is constantly overshadowed by the giant success that is, was, and ever shall be Fleabag. The comparison is particularly close for Maddie Rice as she stepped into the Waller-Bridge shoes for a revival of Fleabag at the Edinburgh fringe last year. In Pickle Jar Rice plays the character of Miss, who is a sweet, lame and vaguely incapable English teacher at an all-girls school. The set, designed by Alice Hallifax, is a very effective brown spill pooling from the back wall and studded with little mounds with weeds poking through: it felt strongly reminiscent of the video game Pikmin, in which a spaceman has to collect and shepherd little flower-people to safety. Rice multi-roles in this indistinct and shifting space very capably, and although some characterisations feel a little hackneyed – her students are knock-off Catherine Tate Laurens, with “urban” accents and bad posture – there are some absolute gems. In particular a divorced food tech teacher making bad jokes about his dancing, the softly spoken and prone to weeping school councillor, and the real star of the show Mairead, the ever-young Irish housemate and RS teacher of the mixed metaphor. Mairead is hilarious, and characterised to perfection, with Rice almost looking like a different actor in these moments and leading to a vague sense of longing that Mairead was our central character, although granted it would probably be impossible to follow the story, fraught as it would be with mixed metaphors about forks, dating and pickles.
It isn’t totally easy to follow the narrative as it is, with exclamations of an argument that didn’t seem to happen and a disjointed lead up to and away from what should be the crux of the narrative. Interesting ruminations on young female sexuality, as expressed in the overhearing about an erotic dance-off that gets the school disco cancelled, are left undeveloped, which feels like a missed opportunity. There was a lot of laughter from the audience, some of which felt a little over-eager and pre-packaged, especially in the early stages of the performance, but there are some amusing sections, including a very effective viewing of a dance rehearsal and some great sequences in a highly convincing club. Mairead brings a lot of the comedy, but overall Pickle Jar is more amusing than hilarious, slightly disengaged from itself and its narrative as it values humour over honesty. This seems to be particularly strong as the central character is several steps removed from the weighty issue: perhaps told from the perspective of one of the other girls, the teenage suicide may have landed and been more linked to the comedy. As it stands, it feels uncomfortably as though the story of a student’s suicide has been co-opted by her teacher, weaving it in to the narrative of her hopeless life in way that just doesn’t do justice to the event. Rice is an excellent and engaging performer, but sadly this piece feels self-serving and underdeveloped.