Monday, 19 February 2018

Theatre review: Girls & Boys

A good run of plays in the last few days continues at the Royal Court, a theatre that Vicky Featherstone has put at the centre of the response to, and attempts to change, the culture of sexual misconduct in theatre as well as other industries. But while all this has been blowing up over the last six months, the season Featherstone programmed before all that already featured a number of relevant shows. Perhaps not quite as on-the-nose as Rita, Sue and Bob, Too, the title of Dennis Kelly’s Girls & Boys gives away that he’ll be looking at the relationship between the sexes, and despite its sole cast member being female is ultimately a look at masculinity, and whether it is by definition toxic. Lyndsey Turner directs Carey Mulligan as the unnamed Performer, who for the most part narrates directly to the audience, starting with the story of meeting a man in an EasyJet queue and, after a shaky start, being thoroughly charmed by him.

In fact, as she acknowledges, the way she describes that first meeting with her eventual husband is enough to make the audience fall a bit in love with him too.

In retrospect she’s making a point about how impossible it is to know who someone really is and what they’re capable of, and this being a Dennis Kelly play there’s clearly going to be not so much a sting in the tale as a kick. Most of the play sees Mulligan address the audience like this, a very chatty, relaxed performance from a likeable character with a good sense of humour and a perspective on the world (Paris is disappointing, “like Leeds with wider roads.”) She describes a well-matched couple, she pushing past trustafarians to get a sought-after job producing indie documentaries, he building up an antique furniture business. Occasionally the back of the shallow stage opens up, revealing a living room (and on one occasion a high street) in washed-out blue, like a memory. Here Mulligan acts out scenes with the two (invisible) children she had from the marriage.

These always seem to be slightly fraught exchanges, and in keeping with the theme of the play it’s no coincidence that her daughter is a budding architect, always wanting to build things, while her son, the youngest, delights in bringing this crashing down. Mulligan keeps the audience entertained for the ninety minutes, and it’s the way she keeps her matter-of-fact style even as the story gets devastatingly dark that packs the real punch. Although the story goes into a real and specific phenomenon, it feels like its real theme is a more general look at men and their inherent violence.

I don’t know that I can agree with Kelly’s conclusion that society wasn’t created for the benefit of men, but to protect everyone from men: It implies to me an inevitability and biological imperative, and while the statistics about who commits certain types of act are overwhelming, I suspect societal issues are at play as well as testosterone; meaning Featherstone and co’s mission isn’t a hopeless one.

Girls & Boys by Dennis Kelly is booking until the 17th of March at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs (returns and day seats only.)

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner.

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