Lucy Tomlinson enters the war room for this slightly awkward sci-fi performance project


What would it be like if women ruled the world? Would we be living in a kinder, fairer, nicer place? What if Women Ruled the World is a hybrid event made up of theatrical elements and a learned symposium sometimes awkwardly mashed together which attempts to answer that question. Five actors and five experts convene to find out how to put the worlds to rights, all from a bunker in Manchester’s Mayfield market. On the night I saw it the panel of experts was made up of Mariam Ibrahim Yusuf, a campaigner for refugees, Irena Sabic, a human-rights lawyer, Kate Raworth, an economist, Lisa Ling, who speaks on security issues especially regarding drones, and Holly Kilroy, a campaigner for internet freedom. Each woman is brilliant and it was a pleasure to be in their company for the evening.
The setting for the play was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which ends with the world's most powerful men discussing how they are going to rebuild society after a nuclear holocaust. The set is a recreation of the famous ‘War Room’ (there is even a “you can’t fight in here!” moment) and five female actors kick off proceedings by taking on the male roles from the film.
Fast-forward to the future and there are indeed ten women to every man, but it hasn’t worked out exactly as planned. Instead of the fantasy harem scenario envisaged by Strangelove, the women are in the positions of power and the singular man is the hunky teaboy Karl, whose ability to fill out a pair of itsy-bitsy trunks is of “a highly stimulating nature”, especially for Danusia Samal, who easily raises the most laughs of the night by harnessing her inner female chauvinist pig.
And while there were some laughs, there were more tears. While I found the Strangelove retread a bit clumsy and unmoving, the actors punctuated the discussion section with simple, heartrending recitals of suffering. One of panellists suggested empathy screening ought to be mandatory for future leaders; well if empathy can be tested for by the volume of tears produced at a single play then we don’t need to bother reconvening parliament.
The relative length of the performance sections meant that unfortunately there wasn’t really time to get a good discussion going among the delegates - it felt very forced at the beginning of this section as each panellist was asked the same question in turn. They did start getting into the swing of it though with Holly Kilroy and Irena Sabic shooting back a few knowing lines at Danusia, but the trouble is that the panellists – public speakers, yes, but ones used to getting an hour or so to air their views - simply didn’t have the time to put their points over effectively. The result is fairly shallow though a decent taster – I’d go to see any of these women speak in a more traditional setting in a heartbeat. The exception was Kate Raworth who seemed to be a born performer: if this woman is not Prime Minister in ten year’s time then something has gone very wrong.
I don’t know if this happens every night, it’s such a neat ending that I almost suspected that Raworth was a plant – not only did she have natural stage presence but she managed to insist that teaboy Karl be invited to sit at the table to sign off on the new protocol – a triumph for egalitarianism and an answer to the question posed by the title: what if women ruled the world? Well they wouldn’t. A simple gender reversal is not the solution but only an entirely new way of thinking will solve the predicament we currently find ourselves in.

What if Women Ruled the World?, Mayfield Depot, 5-8 July.