Features Published 23 February 2019

Vaults Odyssey: Girlhood

Francesca Peschier dives into Vault Festival to find shows that explore girlhood, “like cutting through life with blunted scissors”.

Francesca Peschier

‘Bottled’ at Vault Festival. Photo: Slav Kirichok

‘This is what makes us girls
Darlin’ little queens do you know what you’re worth?

Lana Del Rey

‘Dr. Armonson stitched up her wrist wounds. Within five minutes of the transfusion he declared her out of danger. Chucking her under the chin, he said, “What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”

“Obviously, Doctor,” she said, “you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.”

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides

In my recent review of 9 to 5 – The Musical in the West End, I left out the musical’s debate as to the feminist semantics of its use of the term ‘Girls’. It’s at once dismissive (‘the office girls’), infantilising and possessive (‘my girl’) and weirdly 1950s chummy (‘let’s get the girls hidden in the wardrobes ready for the midnight feast’). A certain type of teacher uses it as a collective noun (‘quiet down girls’). Dolly Parton refers to her boobs as ‘the girls’. It’s been appropriated by white women from RuPaul-brand Drag Queens, ‘Hey GIRL’, who in turn nicked in from Black women. It’s loaded and used for women across ages in a way that ‘boys’ simply is not.

And yet this is a Vaults Odyssey of girls, teenage girls and in the case of Everywoman, a one woman show on autobiography and motherhood by an anonymous author, a baby girl. Everywoman is both the outlier and the thread that moves through the other works considered here, the new writing by women for all-women casts: Bottled, Butterflies and Armour, and Girls, a joyous physical ensemble follow up to Boys from Pappy Show. Charlotte Merriam is our Everywoman: she is childless, she is pregnant, she is cradling a newborn and exhausted from her (her girl’s) nightly screaming. The play questions the danger of needing to always connect a story with its author. When Merriam/Everywoman considers herself next to this other woman, a tiny one (a little girl) whose doesn’t/does look like her, it is like she is questioning her own authorship of this person. Her place in the world has shifted and become fixed in the land of motherhood (‘I can’t do that (anymore), I have a daughter). The daughter, who may or may not exist, is so full of possibilities that she is an unknowable – she is as much what she is imagined to be or become, than who she is right now.

‘Armour’ at Vault Festival

Teenage girls have a lot projected onto them. Just because like all adolescents, their brains and hormones are at a wonderful, putty-like stage, their great loves and sorrows are so often dismissed. They are the ‘screaming (girls)’, never the ‘ardent fans’, they are hysterical never impassioned and sullen rather than hurting. In Armour, Emma Pritchard’s character Susie dances around the living room when Team GB triumphs in womens’ hockey at the Olympics. Her mother and sister join her whilst her father sardonically mocks. In many ways, Susie’s story is a small one despite the high stakes of total teenage exclusion as she navigates the Serengeti of private school social hierarchies: ‘You know she’s posh because she’s got eyelash extensions and a horse’ (I definitely knew that girl). The play’s strength is also its weakness in that Pritchard so embodies the paradoxical vulnerability and inner-invincibility of Susie that her performances as the rest of the clique, ripe with comic potential are a little one-dimensional in their hair twirling and eye rolls.

‘Bottled’ at Vault Festival. Photo: Slav Kirichok

Hayley Wareham’s Bottled shows how much a teenage girl, Katy, can carry, so much that her load is split between three actors. Performed in support of Women’s Aid, the play shows the impact of living with domestic violence from Katy’s point of view. It’s a crushing, intimate work as the ‘Katys’ are broken down by her mum’s abusive partner Brian. It’s like watching one of those machines that can press a car into a cube as Katy’s is compressed, the vivacity flattened out of her. ‘My girls, I need my girls’ says Brian, voiced by the three women as he beats and sucks the life out of them with violence but also rarely discussed, devastating financial control. The childhood props of a pink birthday cake and helium balloons show the Scylla and Charybdis (Iliad reference there – they did say write an Odyssey innit) of being a teenage girl, navigating grown-up issues and an adult gaze whilst only being given children’s tools. That’s what I remember it feeling like, cutting through life with blunted scissors.

Butterflies is lighter in its trauma but opens up another strata of girl-world (you weren’t going to get through a review about teenage-girl-shows without a Mean Girls ref, soz) in its treatment of social media. Three monologues of teenage experience cross over each other which on paper could read as the worst kind of TIE issue-led work: revenge porn/sexuality/UCAS. But it’s saved by the human, fully rounded performances and writer Natasha Brotherdale Smith’s avoidance of clichés. Holly Hudson has that YouTube smarm down perfectly as a vlogger whose naked photos are leaked in revenge-porn whilst Georgia Bishop’s giddiness every time her crush texts (‘I don’t think I realllly like girls .. OH GOD SHE’S TEXTED ME A GIF) is an infectious, much-needed injection of giddiness. This is clever, original writing. The comparison of the endless buzz and beep of a mobile to the needle pricks of witchfinder general, poking and picking until the witch (girl) screams, is one that stays with you.

Pappy Show’s ‘Girls’ at Vault Festival

In balance, Pappy Show’s Girls offers hope. The large ensemble, partially improvised nature of the show makes it hard to review. There are stand-out memorable moments, such as when Ursula Mohan shows us a photo of her childhood self and tells us of the girl she once was (is), but the majority is a huge mess of feelings, frequently contradictory. You know, exactly how it can feel inside your brain when you (are a) (talking to a) (trying to understand) a “girl”™. It’s not quite the ‘Everygirl’ to Everywoman, but I feel have known or have been many of the Pappy Show Girls on that stage, and from the huge warm wave of affection you feel from the audience, regardless of gender, I don’t think I am alone in that.

Wearing a wedding dress, Alexa Cruickshank invites audience members onstage to stand in for women she admires and dance with the cast. The night I see it, her mother is in. Cruickshank invites her (her author) on up to play herself. And they dance, and they cry and we cry.

‘This is what makes us girls

I’ll tell you everyday till you get it, girl

It’s all gonna happen’

Lana Del Rey

For more coverage of 2019’s Vault Festival, read Exeunt’s article on Counting Sheep and activist theatre or Hard Relate, which explores queer representation. 

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Francesca Peschier

Dr Francesca Peschier is a dramaturg, lecturer, writer and ex-designer based in the New Works department at the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse. When not writing about or watching theatre she concerns herself with back-combing her hair to Dolly Parton heights and trying to create passable aerial hoop routines to goth rock classics.

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