Binge Fringe Magazine

REVIEW: HIGH STEAKS, ELOINA, EdFringe 2023 ★★★★★

To the bewildered or perhaps unexpected viewer, “Vulva Owners to the front” may be a menacing or even enticing sign to arrive at while queueing for ELOINA’s High Steaks, a piece that combines performance art and clowning to explore our relationship with labia.

Advertised as both a discussion and butchering, it may be no surprise that the show is housed in Summerhall’s Anatomy Lecture Theatre, an original Edwardian structure custom built for onlooking veterinary students and curious observers. A stroke of genius in the venue’s curated programme, with the audience led into the pretence of something tactile, something scholarly… something educational.

Unsurprisingly sold out for such a compelling subject, High Steaks is not for the feint hearted. Perhaps it is also not for the vegans. Upon entry, the audience is led past a table cloaked with sterile plastic sheets. Nought is visible save a solitary make-up mirror, purposely designed for close up examination. The old chalkboard remains – sat squarely at the back while raw steak, suspended by clothes pegs and fishing wire, hang in the air. A nervous silence descends prematurely about the room. This will be an education indeed.

ELOINA teases us in shyly, with an apprehension that leaves us very unsure of where we stand. “Are you here for the concert?” she asks. “Yes. Yes, you are.” We are warmed up graciously, cheekily, and it is clear from the very start that ELOINA is going to be our friend in this. It is a safe space and we are in this together.

Now onto the meat. For ELOINA, the personal is very much political. She illustrates the woefully misrepresented dialogue around Labia using her relationship with her own “fanny flaps” and how she found herself, age ten, wanting labiaplasty. As knives, chopping boards and meat tenderizers are thrown into view, a terrifying moment descends, questioning if this is a bio-med lecture, a cooking class or in fact, a torture chamber. Snippets of interviews bleed through the speakers as we are introduced to how biased sources, fetishization, misinformation and a general lack of media visibility cause vulva shame and gender dysphoria. Overhead fall voices with a desperation to cut away the bad bits, the leftovers, and the beef, but ELOINA tears apart the absurd language used for vulva and labia alike, walking us through their anatomy and familiarising us with their roles. 

High Steaks collaborates with Director Louise Orwin, alongside a clearly capable team who no doubt contribute intricately to the show’s tightly run ship. The sound (Sammy Metcalf and Louise Orwin) and lighting (Lily Woodford-Lewis) design is completely unobtrusive only aiding the rhythm of ELOINA’s performance. Verbatim voice-overs, used regularly throughout the piece, are entirely captivating in a way not all theatre achieves and balance beautifully with the visual performance art. There is a palpable link between art and education within both the narrative and performance.

ELOINA absolutely commands the room through her joy and sincerity. From the outset she is sharp, intentional and open. As audience, we are guided gently and firmly through the topic of labia ownership and ELOINA is a simply delightful teacher. The atmosphere is perfectly crafted to the point where discussing a notoriously formidable subject can be as easy and open as saying hello. High Steaks peels back the curtain on growing up empathetically; acknowledging the weight of pubescent change and how transitioning from child into something unfamiliar feels monstrous and ill fitting. The show radiates with a gender intersectionality that all feminist theatre should aspire to. 

The most extraordinary part of this performance is that ELOINA shares the stage with her own mum, Annie Haines. Supportive to the last and enraptured by her daughter’s courage, it is no surprise that ELOINA would not be there without her. The conversations we have with our mothers and older vulva owning kin is so important to how we perceive our genitalia. Healing our relationship to our own labia and embracing our bodies for what they are protects future generations and allows for a dialogue that is helpful, happy and self-loving. With her mum by her side, ELOINA heals. And so, I dare say, do we.

Personally, I think there can never be enough shows exploring how our uniqueness makes us masterpieces. In the media age of conformity and comparison, it is crucial to underline our matchless humanity to new and impressionable generations. High Steaks is a beautiful show that captures the wonder, pleasure and joy of owning a vulva that is unlike anyone else’s. Whatever your relationship is to your own labia, or to the labia of other people in your life, ELOINA has something to teach you and she will do so with grace, candour and kindness. We cannot undo the pain that has happened, but we can unlearn what it taught us. High Steaks is mesmerising and healing – catch it wherever and however you can. A master of her own stage, who creates and cuts tension blindingly, ELOINA is a name to remember. 

Now I don’t know what you’re doing this fringe, but I’m gonna call my mum.

Recommended Drink: With what ELOINA serving up, an Argentinian Malbec is a must. And perhaps some cranberry juice for good measure… self-cleaning or not.

Catch High Steaks until 13th August at Summerhall Anatomy Lecture Theatre. Tickets are available through the EdFringe Box Office.

Rebekah Smith

Rebekah is a writer, performer and theatre maker based in Edinburgh. Motivated by seeing artists from all backgrounds represented throughout the industry, Rebekah takes special interest in brave, political and divisive theatre. She loves New Writing with themes of identity, religion, mythos, class and gender. Her drink of choice: a Sidecar cocktail or peaty Scotch - neat.
Festivals: EdFringe (2023)
Pronouns: She/Her