IN BRIEF Smart sci-fi exploration of gender power shift is unsettling and rivetingly told

Sci-fi on stage can be a real hit and miss affair, which is why it’s great that recent exponents of this genre have been really successful. Ella Road’s THE PHLEBOTOMIST stoked our fears about truth, power and humanity to great effect. Now, Alex Wood’s carefully-crafted NINE FOOT NINE riffs upon the societal and psychological impacts of changes in physical size and power in the gender mix.

Nate and Cara are a loving couple who we first meet at that most stressful and joyful of times, as they discover the results of a pregnancy test. Sometime before their daughter Sophie’s birth, a global epidemic of unusual growth (“sprouting”) begins to affect the female population, eventually making Cara over nine feet tall with an accompanying increase in strength. The tortuous extension process is conveyed alarmingly well by both the female actors through expressing a physical agony perhaps akin to childbirth (or could one say rebirth?).

Apart from an increase in strength, the change in size has a huge number of other ramifications, including a feeling of disconnection from her growing child “I can’t feel them inside me” Cara laments to Nate. Everything Cara does has to be recalibrated, from a hug to a smack to a hit, which presents challenges for both sexes. Later, as men are the less strong of the sexes and so in less demand, women still find themselves exploited, simply in new ways.

Schools introduce segregation, and prejudice is never far from the surface where difference is involved; at school, late sprouting girls are labelled “stunters”, creating psychological issues on top of the physiological ones, putting pressure on all who try to support the young women, including schoolteacher Nate.

Wood has chosen to tell this global story by focussing on one family, in doing so making it human and relateable. He has clearly thought about a raft of impacts and their ramifications carefully and picked a number to explore, and even manages some humour to leaven the tension. This is what gives the text substance and makes it worthy of close audience attention. Direction by Helena Jackson is subtle but firm, moving the show forward at a good clip.

All three actors are well-cast. Paul O’Dea as Nate is the unchanging part of this equation, yet ironically as a teacher and the male (and therefore not a sprouter) he has to try to help others through this seismic change. His calm, warm and loving (yet ultimately overprotective) approach is a solid hub for the characters to move around. It is all the more disturbing, therefore, to see him snap and for the pent-up anguish to come tumbling out after Sophie has used her power to hurt another child. Alexandra James as Cara is very effective, ambitious and unafraid, portraying the acclimatisation to her new status in a way that we can relate to. Misha Pinnington as Sophie portrays the vulnerable innocence of the child well, and then later as she becomes the only link between her separated parents, becoming a force to equal with as she stands up to Cara.

A huge positive in this script’s case is the introduction of sly humour, as used in the clever and layered scene-changing sound montages, where adverts for stretchmark glitter and elevator shoes for men remind us that whatever happens, someone is always ready to make a buck out of our trials. The humour extends to a couple of very uncomfortable 911 emergency calls with sex-related issues (which were nevertheless very funny, albeit painful for us men!). Notable in its own right, the engaging and smart sound design includes a continuous heartbeat backing track which gives a useful underscore to the events on stage.

Alongside all these positives, I must air a couple of reservations that I had about the presentation as a whole. There was a bit too much jumping around in time for me, timings were a little hard to fathom at the start.

Secondly: how to create the height without showing it. The stylistic decision to render the growth in an abstract visual manner is double-edged. The text needs to remind us of the size difference, and just sometimes I wondered if there might have been another way to show this difference.

Finally, the whole show is captioned with the caption screen sitting top centre of the set. The one thing that I found sometimes difficult to juggle was my attention being drawn to the screen and away from the action.

Sleepless Theatre’s production does the script justice and makes us think, which makes for a satisfying 60 minutes at the theatre.

NINE FOOT NINE played the Edinburgh Festival 2018 and returned for the Incoming Festival at the end of June 2019, playing Manchester, Bristol and London.

Catching Up with….Alex Wood, Writer of NINE FOOT NINE, playing this week in Bristol, Manchester and London

Alex is the newly-appointed Editor of, the UK’s leading theatre website. As a critic, he is also involved in assessing for the Offies Awards (Off West-End Theatre). When he has any other time, he is a writer of plays. Alex made his Edinburgh writing debut last year with NINE FOOT NINE, an interesting and engaging sci-fi play with a lot to say about gender, size and power. I was lucky enough to meet Alex a couple of years ago and I know that he is a significant rising talent. The play was shortlisted for the 2018 LET Award, and showcased at the Royal Court as part of their International Women’s Day programme. Having seen NINE FOOT NINE last year, I wanted to talk to Alex about its return to Bristol, Manchester and London this week, produced by Sleepless Theatre Company, as part of the INCOMING FESTIVAL.

Alex Wood

Alex, thanks for talking with me. Firstly, could you tell those readers who haven’t seen it what the play is about?

NINE FOOT NINE starts with an off-the-wall premise – what would happen if most women around the world grew to over nine feet tall. It blends a pretty low-key sci-fi premise (like something out of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman!) with discussions about gender, power and relationships. We follow a family of three as they go through this strange experience together, and see how it shapes them. 

How did the idea for NINE FOOT NINE come to you?

It was actually during a discussion with the show’s director (and Sleepless’ artistic director), Helena Jackson, while at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016. We were talking about heights and identity (I think it was after I watched a show by Babolin at Bedlam that it came to me!) So Sleepless has been there throughout. I also did a lot of research on physicality, gender and height in history before 2016 so the flame had been burning for a little while. 

How long did it take to develop into a full script?

A LOT longer than I initially expected! I had some scenes started in 2016 and we had a rough draft finished in 2017. But that version really really didn’t work at all – there were twice as many characters, strange subplots and a man bookending the show by giving two lectures on Saussure (a Swiss linguist and semiotician). We had to have a very thorough rewrite before getting to the stage in 2018.  

Nine Foot Nine

I saw the show at its pre-Edinburgh tryouts last year at The Bunker. In what ways did that run help you to refine the show?

The six performances we did at the Bunker were an absolute blessing – the venue was so full of brilliant individuals (also a big shout-out to Matt Maltby at Pint Sized for all his feedback) who told us what we needed to hear – i.e., what worked and what really didn’t. And watching the show for the first time, there were a lot of tricky bits. We got rid of two scenes and added a further three – refining the concept, getting rid of some distracting interludes and making it all a lot fleeter. By the time we got to Edinburgh it was a completely new offering. 

The show is fully captioned and I believe all venues are fully accessible for the current mini-tour. As a strong supporter of accessibilty myself, I wondered if there was something specific that made inclusiveness (for actors and audiences) such an important thing for you with this play? 

I think the reason why it is so important is because in the play it isn’t important – while the show is creatively captioned and Alex, who plays Cara, speaks BSL, none of this affects the plot, the concept or the themes. Productions don’t have to be directly about inclusivity to be inclusive, which is something that I think we’re seeing a big shift towards in recent years  (fingers crossed, this will continue). 

Do you have the same cast as last year?

Exactly the same as last Edinburgh! 

What future life do you see for the play?

At the moment a few venues are interested in giving the show another life so we’re keeping all the options open (and keeping the set in my basement…). But for now we’re just thrilled to be back as part of Incoming, there are so many staggeringly great shows that are part of the festival that it’s an honour to rub shoulders with them. The whole team at the festival are delightful. 

Are you working on other ideas that you can tell us about?

I’ve got a few plays in the pipeline but finding time to really get them mounted has been a nightmare! There’s an all-female historical drama and a love story set in Pudsey (where I was born) that are almost ready. Whether or not they’ll see the light of day is another question…hopefully I’ll be able to say more in 2020!

Nine Foot Nine. Alex Jackson. Photo by Katie Edwards.

Nine Foot Nine plays as part of the Incoming festival, visiting Bristol on 27 June (Tobacco Factory Theatres, 8.30pm, details here), Manchester on 29 June (HOME, 8.30pm, details here, and London on 30 June (New Diorama, 7.00pm, details here). Last few tickets at all venues- hurry!