Being a teenage girl can be an exhausting and lonely occupation. It can also – as Suhayla El-Bushra shows us in the Unicorn’s second play for adult audiences – be marred with the kind of latent aggression that goes beyond your run-of-the-mill, door-slamming, adolescent angst.
Jenny (Eden Howard) is a friendless, chess playing GCSE slave, who like El-Bushra herself, spent much of her childhood in Africa, whilst her mother, Erica (Sarah Malin), longs for the sort of exciting, new-age life she lived as a researcher there before their return to England after the death of Jenny’s father. When Jenny befriends the class bad-girl Nadine (Kate Lassman-Long), recently expelled from another school for breaking a boy’s arm, the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ springs to mind, as the narrative that unravels sees Nadine’s friendship with Jenny, and unlikely relationship with Erica, pushed to breaking point.
The romantic, turbulent kind of friendship that girls so often fall into during adolescence is teased out of El-Bushra’s script by Howard and Lassman-Long. Howard’s nervous, timid Jenny, all bandy limbs and foal-like awkwardness, is gradually inverted by Lassman-Long’s more grown-up Nadine, who enjoys her obscenities almost as much as her cigarettes. Their chemistry is amplified by the fact they are of similar age to their characters; a successful casting choice on the part of director Nathan Curry and the Unicorn, as both actors were plucked out of their own youth theatre programme, reinforcing their commitment to inspiring young people through theatre and giving them real agency through direct, creative participation.
El-Bushra, who devised the play after teaching students in a pupil referral unit, is no stranger to the relations between and the pressures put on young people, especially from certain backgrounds. She describes how in the classroom, some of her pupil’s were ‘very sweet, but then used to go out after school and do terrible things’, a duality, the play leads us to conclude, that is down to both expectations put upon girls, and the social segregation young people from less-privileged backgrounds are more likely to experience. Her experiences lend the teenage lexicon and rhythm of speech an authenticity that could otherwise feel forced, while Georgia Lowe’s set, a suburban kitchen peppered with relics of African life, is dirtied and curled at the edges, Curry’s dynamic staging making full use of the depth and height of the small stage space.
The sugary pop music that bookends each short scene is at odds with the obvious smut of their lyrics, reminding us of the contradictory expectations placed on teenage girls in an over-sexualised culture and the way pop music perptuates this. The music also, provides a stark contrast to the aggression, anger and hate that is present in both girls, with Jenny’s excessively long ‘kill list’ and the play’s ultimate revelation reminding us that a teenage girl’s capacity for violence is just as raw, just as urgent and destructive, as any boy’s.
The three women, trapped by circumstance, are driven into making dubious decisions that raise interesting questions about morality, parenthood and responsibility. Questions that the piece fails to properly answer, as the story doesn’t deepen much beyond its – admittedly complex – portrait of teenage friendship, meaning that Malin’s excellent performance feels a little short-changed. Despite the fact that a longer running time would have afforded the narrative a chance to develop alongside a sharper presentation of a mother/daughter relationship strained by grief and exacerbated by hormones, the tangled relations between the three characters gives the play a dynamism and a honesty in its portrayal of a female, teenage struggle that is under-represented on stage and in the media.