Freshwoman is a narrative sketch show that Tom Skelton and I wrote together over long summer evenings at his house off Cowley Road. We would talk very academically over a drink and a sunset about what was going to happen in a scene and then, with the help of Tom’s trusty dictaphone, record a number of rough-and-ready improvised sketches (often playing multiple characters and leaping round his room to inhabit each one, undoubtedly causing some disorientation and gender confusion for his housemates above).
These recordings went on to serve as our preliminary script, and when the time came in September to put fingers to keyboard we would chop, cut and change round the fermented fruit of our preserved improv to tell the story of Mathilde du Belle, the eponymous Freshwoman. Mathilde is a South Carolinan girl in the 1920s who comes to the University of Oxford to experience the rigours and romantic adventures of the town, and – some hope – to find a rich husband to take care of her and her recently impoverished parents following the Wall Street Crash. Our late-night writing had delivered us a semi-improvised, new-born script, and it was ready to be shown off proudly at the scrutinising baby shower of our Burton Taylor bid.
Rehearsing the show this term has certainly made our script grow up. Hearing the lines in the mouths of our cast has given every scene new vitality, and seeing characters made flesh is always a revelation (even if one cast member has perennial trouble pronouncing the name Maxington Crème-Brulée. We are not cutting that name.). Throwaway lines which were funny after a few beers, and which were just as stale in the morning, have been found and destroyed; and the story has become tighter and slicker by experimenting as we practised. Part-doubling remains an essential component of the show, and everyone in the ensemble has a moment during the hour-long production when they have to leap off-stage to effect a quick set or costume change. (Tom’s housemates would be impressed.) All in all, the transition from our raw improv to seeing a fluid, living set of characters on stage is surely as exciting as a visit to Maxington Crème-Brulée’s lamb farm in Northamptonshire. (NB: this does not feature in the show. It’s just a name you will want to say again and again.)