“The smell of hair gel and Hard Candy nail polish, the blur of pop-star posters and kids’ TV, the taste of saccharin and salt would lure me into a half-trance like so many times before. GirlWorld, abandon all daily grind and greyness: all you who enter here.”
I don’t know if the creators of Girl World have read journalist, controversialist and peddler of transphobic bigotry Julie Burchill’s (simultaneously terrible and oddly brilliant) teen novel Sugar Rush but sitting in that show, amongst all the pink and angry whimsy and glitter, I found the above paragraph floating back into my head. Because I agree with Burchill on GirlWorld, even if I don’t agree with her restrictions on who should be allowed in. Girls have this special ability to create bedroom-sized utopias for themselves, insulated from the outside world (its boring rules, its gendered unfairness) with thick layers of fake fur and a fug of hairspray.
The best bits of Girl World feel like being back in that teenage (or tweenage) bedroom, safe and swaddled and high on the giddy chemical scents of strawberry lip balm. Set and costume designer Ranya El-Refaey has crafted something truly wonderful. Performers Camille Dawson and Serena Ramsey wear rainbow-bright dungarees and reel around a brilliantly elaborate riot grrl playground: full of soft toys and patchwork wall hangings which document their world, and rich with electronic, gameboy-like pop sounds from onstage musicians. They play Tilly and Inga, two best friends who’ve created their own fiefdom, offering imaginary guided tours round its sights: disco land, the naughty step, the balloon-headed goddess whose laws they must obey and who demands infant sacrifices. Serena Ramsey (as Inga) delivers the more satisfying of the two performances, switching deliriously from accent to accent, letting off manic giggles and terrifying pronouncements. This is girlhood, with an edge: Inga whittles a ‘dick-chopper-offer’ from a stick, ready to police the boundaries of her queendom.
Then, a vagina-shaped tear opens up in its fabric-swaddled walls: for all its Mighty Boosh-esque lunacy, there’s something very literal-minded about this parable of growing up. The tear is sexual awakening, romance, adulthood. All the looming forces ready to rip this friendship apart. Girl World (sometimes) feels so raw and painful and intense, recreating a kind of girl-specific pain that rarely gets talked about. It explores the clingy panic of seeing a friend growing up faster than you, and seeing her get sucked into a world that you don’t understand and don’t want to. The terror of all-girl insularity being lost, and of being pushed from the centre of your own universe and into the margins of someone else’s.
Girl World is evocative, yes. But also frustrating. Surprisingly, it’s co-written by Camille Dawson and her Dad and brother, Franklin and Paul: I guess there’s an argument for having an outsider’s perspective on girlhood but these two additional male inputs don’t particularly make themselves felt. Instead, the actual text of the show feels thin – too thin to support the emotional weight of everything it’s exploring. Inga and Tilly don’t have the words to explain what they mean to each other, which makes sense, because they’re probably about 10. But they don’t have the words to talk around it, either, and there’s an utter inevitability to the show’s narrative of leaving childhood behind that’s not deflected by a real sense of the looming, specific scariness of growing up as a woman – the scrutiny, the judgement, the shaming, the belittling.
Parodoxically, there’s also a lot of stuff about the abstract, general, biological bits of womanhood here, in a way that feels a bit over-egged, or over-ovaried (I’m sorry). Girl World is full of the imagery of female biology but it doesn’t seem to have much to actually say about it, for all the girls’ slippery imaginary journeys down fallopian tubes. Girlness can’t be reduced to womb-having: it’s something more fragile, more complicated than that. The most terrifying moments of going from girl to woman (for me anyway) are defined by things that sit outside, not inside: when people notice your changing body and put new pressures on it. Inga’s jokes about Tilly having a catfood-smelling vagina feel especially jarring – if she’s terrified of her obsessive friendship and/or queer feminist utopia being broken apart, it’s weird that the best insult she can think of involves shaming her friend for her body.
There’s the germ of something really special here. But for now, it’s a bratty, meandering, sugar-high of a show – and I’m torn between mesmerised joy and a nagging, parental instinct to tell it off. To behave, tidy up, shape itself into something that makes more sense. Which I won’t. Not quite.
Girl World is on at The Space until 25th August. More info here.