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Sadie Hasler and Asfaneh Gray - Fran & Leni and Octopus

When former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine defaced the signage at the British Library's current Punk London: 1976-78 exhibition a few weeks ago while there to take part in an event with writer Jon Savage, it was a very necessary gesture. Albertine's inking in of the names of her own band as well as X Ray Spex and Siouxsie and the Banshees in an otherwise all male list was followed by the question 'What about the women?' alongside her signature

At an exhibition where visitors have even been admonished for taking photographs, it was about as punk as it gets. This was something recognised too by Faber and Faber, publishers of Albertine's memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, when they tweeted to the British Library that Albertine was 'still more punk than you.'

Writer and performer Sadie Hasler committed a slightly less public but equally significant act of rebellion the week when she laddered her tights just before she was about to leave the house. Hasler was on her way to prepare for her new play, Fran & Leni, which she is appearing in with her fellow conspirator in the Old Trunk theatre company, Sarah Mayhew, when the spirit of punk overtook her.

“I was going to change,” she says, “but then I just thought, fuck it. If I'm writing a play about punk then I'm not going to change just because someone might be offended by it. Why should I?”

Fran & Leni focuses on two women who meet in 1976 in a North London comprehensive school, and who form a punk band called The Rips. Dove-tailing between the pair's teenage years and everything that follows, the play looks at the ups and downs of a friendship which crashes and burns much as punk did, but which comes out the other side bruised but defiantly unbowed.

“I wanted to tell a story that wasn't just about punk,” says Hasler, “but about these two women, and what happens to them over the years. I always want to wrote strong female characters, and I wanted to shake off any ideas of what traditional female behaviour should be in terms of being demure. That was the case even up to the sixties, but when punk happened that all changed.”

Hasler saw some of this first hand.

“My mum was in a band with Hazel O'Connor, doing glam rock covers,” she says. “That was before she became famous, but then my mum got pregnant with me, and within a year Hazel got really big with Breaking Glass.”

In the play, Fran and Leni's differences are what makes their friendship click.

“Fran is a classically trained musician, but Leni sees the bad behaviour of punk as a vehicle to get away. It's not a history play. I wanted to look at the sort of freedoms women were allowed at that time. It's about escape.”

Fran & Leni plays back to back at Assembly with Octopus, a new play by Asfaneh Gray which sets itself in a frighteningly recognisable near future where state-defined Britishness prompts three very different women to define their own identity by forming a punk band.

“I'm a big fan of punk,” says Gray, who developed Octopus' co-production between Paper Tiger and Fine Mess Theatre at Soho Theatre and the Arcola. “It feels like a curiously British form of protest. We've never really had a revolution, but it feels like there was this moment when people thought, fuck it, and ripped everything up.

“People have this idea that punk is a white, male aggressive thing, but the play came out of a frustration about how identity is defined, and about what kind of stories we should be telling. I'm half Iranian and half Jewish, I look middle eastern and I've been to Iran, but that experience isn't a story I feel I could tell. People's backgrounds are a lot more complicated than they might first appear.”

In Octopus, Sarah, Sara and Scheherazade have very different musical tastes, but somehow manage to find a bond that unites them all. The title of Gray's satire on identity comes from a story told by one of the girls about an octopus who visits a hairdressers, only to be tugged eight different ways in terms of styling.

“It's looking at how things can be multi-faceted,” says Gray, “and it has this do it yourself spirit that's channelled throughout it.”

Fran & Leni and Octopus arrive at a time when autobiographical tomes by Albertine, Everything But the Girl's Tracey Thorn, Patti Smith, Sonic Youth co-founder Kim Gordon and ex Fall member Brix Smith have put their various female fronted punk story to the fore in a similar fashion. Recent fundraising events for She-Punks: Women in Punk, a documentary film in progress initiated by Helen Reddington and Gina Birch alongside Albertine, writer Vivien Goldman and others is reclaiming a hidden history which Reddington, as Chefs vocalist Helen McCookerybook, and Birch as bass player and vocalist with The Raincoats, were a key part of.

This was outlined in Reddington's book, The Lost Women of Rock Music, published in 2011, while the recent compilation album of lesser known female post-punk artists, Sharon Signs to Cherry Red, exposed an even greater wealth of talent which a new generation is drawing inspiration from. When The Raincoats recently played the Stewart Lee curated All Tomorrow's Parties festival, Birch could be spotted quietly enjoying younger but equally punky female bands, including Shopping and Trash Kit.

“It's wonderful to read about how these women made things happen for themselves,” says Hasler. “They really had to inveigle their way into things, and they're such an inspiration.”

For Gray, "Looking at what's going on in the Labour Party since the Leave vote, people are putting bricks through windows, and it's the same sort of anger as punk. People are seeing through the bullshit, and seeing that we need to tear things down and start again. Out of all that antagonism that's a constructive thing. It's like in Octopus, the moment these three young women come together, even though they're singing different songs, they still have the space to be who they want to be, and despite all their differences they can create something beautiful.”

For Hasler and Mayhew, this sort of attitude applies to the entire aesthetic behind both Fran & Leni and Old Trunk.

“If we want to be playing these strong women who aren't reliant on men,” Hasler says, “then we have to do it ourselves.”

Fran & Leni, Assembly George Square, Aug 4-28, 3.05-4.10pm; Octopus, Assembly George Square, Aug 4-28, 1.45-2.45pm.
www.assemblyfestival.com

The Herald, August 24th 2016

ends

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