Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Theatre review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Southwark Playhouse puts comic books on stage again although we're in significantly darker territory than Usagi Yojimbo with Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which adapts Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel set in 1976 San Francisco. Minnie (Rona Morison) is 15, the same age her mother Charlotte (Rebecca Trehearn) was when she had her. She might not be adding another teenage pregnancy to the family but her own sexual awakening is far from healthy, as she's been seduced by her mother's seedy boyfriend Monroe (Jamie Wilkes.) It's an ongoing affair and although Minnie hasn't particularly fooled herself that it's love, she's still pretty smitten. With an out-of-her-depth mother fond of a number of recreational drugs, and a seemingly more sensible ex-stepfather, Pascal (Mark Carroll,) who writes her letters encouraging her to keep studying, but has something of a distant, academic interest in her himself, Minnie's left to find her own way.

As the title suggests, she narrates her story as a confessional diary, although not a written one - she records her thoughts on a series of cassettes.

This is a story with a real underlying sadness but one that creeps up on you by stealth. This is largely down to the fact that Morison is very good at conveying Minnie's enthusiasm for life and new experiences - she doesn't see what Monroe is doing as abuse but doesn't mistake it for love either, and also considers a flirtation with a pretty lesbian - and losing track of the fact that she's sleepwalking into some pretty dodgy territory. After taking out her frustrations on her best friend Kimmie (Saskia Strallen,) her eventual realisation that she's allowing herself to be taken advantage of, and could actually be in danger, comes as something of a sucker punch.

Alexander Parker and Amy Ewbank's production is quite nuanced - Wilkes presents Monroe as something of a sleaze to start with but introduces more sympathetic hints of him being as lost as everyone else as the story moves on - although I'm not convinced the nods to the play's graphic novel origins really work: Video is used to show images from the original in the background, and Andrew Riley's design offers a number of places to project them onto where the actors can interact with them (although the authentically hideous 1970s wallpaper is too busy, meaning some visuals get lost on them.) But these images aren't used consistently enough, and the overall effect is of a production that's trying to be a live action comic book, but doesn't quite have the budget to pull it off.

But it's in the more simply theatrical where The Diary of a Teenage Girl succeeds, in the performances and particularly Morison giving us a confused and flawed heroine, but one it's easy to root for.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Marielle Heller, based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, is booking until the 25th of March at Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Darren Bell.

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