What really goes on in the powder room
In the new movie Powder Room, the action takes place in the ladies loos, but just what really does go on in there? Three female writers reveal all
Forget the dancefloor. In the last days of disco, when I was in my heyday, the powder room was where it all happened ... except that we never called it the 'Powder Room'. That was far too posh. Where I grew up, in Lancashire (within the Coronation Street corridor of the north west) it was commonly (very commonly, in fact) referred to as The Bogs.
Clouds nightclub in Preston was the place to be on a Saturday night and the Bogs at Clouds was its nerve centre. This is where decisions were made; deals were brokered; hair was tonged; gossip was germinated, fertilised, flourished.
The club management realised the vital importance of the ladies and so they had spared no expense in creating the most luxurious loos in Lancashire. Wall-to-wall mirrors, plush velvet armchairs, pots of pot-pourris and magazine racks filled with the latest issues of Fab208, Jackie and Smash Hits, this really was the hub of the club and where we would spend most of our night out.
There was a practical reason too. Out there in the full blare of the DJ, you couldn't even hear yourself think. So if you weren't either dancing under the disco ball, snogging that fella you'd fancied for ages or queueing up for your Martini and lemonade, you were in the Bogs having a "sit-down", comparing lipsticks and destroying reputations.
My most memorable powder room incident was the night when I spotted a woman surreptitiously nipping into the toilets, head down, not speaking to anyone and looking very furtive indeed. Naturally I had to investigate, so I staked her out and waited until she emerged from the cubicle. Lo and behold, it was Sister Philomena (not her actual name!!) one of the teachers from my school and a nun, no less of the Faithful Companions of Jesus order who had ruled my life with a rod of iron. I pretended I hadn't recognised her without her regulation black & white-wimpled habit covering most of her face but it was her alright, complete with lippy, eye shadow and a Farrah Fawcett flick.
She must have realised she'd been rumbled because within minutes I spotted her leaving the premises with a mystery man following closely behind ... followed closely behind by me, I might add. If only they'd had camera phones in those days I could have made a fortune! But alas, who needed documentary evidence when the rumour mill was in full swing? Instead I retreated back to the Bogs to spread the word of my latest disco discovery with the rest of the handbag mafia.
As I emerge from the cubicle I notice that there's just one other woman in the pub loo. She's washing her hands, drying them, fixing her hair a little. In the mirror she's careful not to make eye contact. Not a talker then. You get to gauge these things pretty quickly.
We continue our ablutions in silence. Satisfied with her make-up she turns towards a door on the right (the loo entrance is to our left.) She wrenches the door handle a few times. Nothing happens. She's obviously staff, I'm thinking to myself. That looks like a storeroom door.
She thumps it in frustration. Pounds on the door handle some more. Odd. Suddenly, she speaks. "We have a problem here," she announces grimly.
"We're locked in!" she cries dramatically wrenching the door handle to demonstrate the enormity of our sudden fate. She bangs on the door again. She clears her throat. She's going to scream, isn't she?
"The door we came in is over there," I tell her quietly. "I think that's a storeroom." She is mortified. I feel this is my fault. We exchange a look as she leaves. These things happen, my eyes tells her.
When I go out to the bar I won't be telling others – having a laugh at your expense.
What happens in the Ladies stays in the Ladies.
The Ladies, the Powder Room or as some of those annoying theme bars would have it Wenches, Senoritas and worst, worst, worst of all, Chicks. It is our secretive, sisterly world scented with Chanel and Curious by Britney and pine cleaning products with a back note of something you really, truly do not want to think too much about.
It is a land of sudden matey-ness, where strangers will pass sheafs of their loo roll under the cubicle door because, as usual, you've got the one with the empty dispenser.
It is also a place of diplomatic discretion where you know that the wee bit of urgent whispering at the sinks followed by: "Hold on a minute," then a knock on your cubicle door and "Chantelle – that you in there?" is the standard security check being made before the pair of them verbally rip Chantelle apart.
And when you join them at the sinks, you know not to raise so much as a cynical eyebrow when another girl comes into the loo and they cry in delighted unison: "Chantelle! Och it's just brilliant to see you."
The Ladies is a place for the emergency make-up share. The instant relationship advice between perfect strangers. "Me, I'd wait till Christmas, get the present and then dump him."
It's a place for borrowed under eye concealer and "Swear you won't tell a soul."
It is a forum for communal assessment of Visible Panty Line and cleavage and hemline boundaries.
It is a haven of camaraderie and gossip where women talk freely about men knowing that no confidence revealed will shared beyond the turbo hand dryer at the door.
Well, apart from later... between a few, very close friends.
My abiding memory of powder rooms in my youth is of bitchiness and back biting. Teenage girls can be extremely competitive and judgmental and nowhere is this more apparent than in front of a communal mirror.
I remember one trendy girl sniggering with her friends at the state of my three-tiered gypsy skirt and naff Simon T-shirt – terrible combination – in the ladies of the local parish hall, when I was about 14.
I graduated to slightly better outfits, usually from Miss Selfridge, when I hit the proper local disco at 16, but still got the critical eye in the loos.
I probably did the same myself but not as blatantly, and I wouldn't have wanted to hurt anyone's feelings.
Of course, the toilets were the boardrooms for discussions on the boys outside and the retreat for the heart-broken who had been snubbed or dumped out on the dance floor. I also recall a bit of bra stuffing going on in there too – these were the days before the Wonderbra.
There was a better sense of camaraderie in the ladies' toilets of the Queen's Student Union and the famous Crescent disco bar on Sandy Row, but that vanished again when I moved to Dublin.
All the girls would be glammed up as if they were entering Miss World and took their make-up applications very seriously, usually in absolute concentrated silence. Or a couple or three of them would cram into a cubicle to powder their noses ...
My belief in the sisterhood of the ladies' was restored in Carlingford, when I called into our local with my husband for a quick glass of Guinness on the way back from a walk.
My hair was all over the place from the wind and I hadn't a screed of make-up on – and in walks my husband's good looking ex, dolled up to the nines.
I fled to the loos and two strangers immediately came to my rescue with their make-up bags and combs when I told them of my plight.
Faith restored in one fell swoop.
The inside story
Powder Room is the screen version of the stage play When Women Wee, which was apparently created after writer Rachel Hirons overheard a conversation between two women in a toilet cubicle during a clubbing trip.
With a largely female cast, the film stars Brit favourites Sheridan Smith, Jamie Winston, Game Of Thrones' Oona Chaplin and singer Kate Nash.
The movie – the directorial debut of MJ Delany – follows Sam (Sheridan Smith, top) on a night out when she runs into an old friend from university and creates a fictional life for herself to compete with the success of her old chum.
As the night goes on, Sam has to reassess her life during a series of conversations in the nightclub's powder room.
In selected cinemas from today and provincewide from next week.
... and one man lifts the lid on the gents
By Ivan Little
Let me lift the lid on the lads' lavvy. Quite simply, there's nothing genteel about the gents, which are quintessentially all-too-public places for the pursuance of what should be private functions.
You're rarely alone at the urinals so us chaps have to watch our pees and queues with an unspoken etiquette which dictates that we just don't speak to anyone.
It may not be particularly PC at the WC. But we tend to keep ourselves – and everything else – to ourselves.
Which is why a gentleman never looks to his extremities in case – God forbid – he should catch an accidental glimpse of his neighbours', er, extremities.
And though the eyes-front stare can mean tinkling on one's Timberlands it's much more preferable to a Doc Marten in the unmentionables.
Only once can I remember breaking the sacred loo and order of the cludgie which isn't toilet humour but rather the bog-standard Ulster-Scots word for the John.
That was when I found myself hanging out, so to speak, beside George Best.
I tried to rein in my natural curiosity but I couldn't resist a peek at the red devil, a move which quickly got me the red card. From me.
On another occasion in the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine I ended up next in line to a famous Belfast singer but his Van the Manhood was his own business.
Finding a cubicle is usually a blessed relief. But sitting down on the job can be hard to stand.
My most cheek-flushing visit to any dumper was at an Army training camp in Kenya where the facilities consisted of a row of open-air chemical toilets with no partitions. No nothing.
It felt like chemi-khazi as a succession of squaddies squatted beside me to unburden themselves.
In more ways than one. But the small talk was too big a challenge for me and I legged it.
And every time I went back, I still couldn't go.