It’s easy to be seduced by the Seventies. All that sexy counterculture, crocheted bra tops, and a world in which every second item was either brown or orange. Or possibly both, like the wallpaper in Andrew Riley’s set design for The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Unfortunately it’s also in one of those prints that once you’ve let the thought ‘looks a bit like an abstract vagina’ enter your brain, it’s impossible to look at it as anything but. Because once an illusion – interior decoration related or otherwise – is shattered it’s difficult to return to the original innocent view with any integrity.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl in graphic novel form by Phoebe Gloeckner dispenses with many of the mirages of the Seventies. Set in San Francisco at the tail end of the decade, free love is swapped for an unpleasant and exploitive relationship between the fifteen-year-old Minnie and her mother’s much older boyfriend, Monroe. Drinking and drug taking is less mind-expanding, and more ‘mother’s-passed-out-on-the-couch again’. In one later scene, Minnie comes out in boils all over her body as a reaction to injecting heroin. Ideas of freedom and unconventionality manifest themselves in a family where the adults are incapable of providing any support or structure for Minnie and her younger sister Gretel.
The book and the 2015 film version (like the play also adapted by Marielle Heller) are at times incredibly sad. In both, Minnie’s relationship with Monroe feels deeply creepy and he seems – through adult eyes – pathetic and scorn worthy. There are moments of humour in the book, and Minnie is shown as intelligent, artistic and possessive of an impressive desire to survive the terrible things that happen to her, but it would also be easy to fall back on ‘dark’, ‘intense’ or (as Hilary Chute notes in the forward) ‘raw’ when describing it.
Alexander Parker and Amy Ewbank’s new production of the play version of The Diary of a Teenage Girl at the Southwark Playhouse takes a very different approach to the book and film. The over-riding tone is often comedy, and the few moments of despair or upset get largely lost amongst the waves of laughter. Whilst it works for some scenes, the constant insistence on it being funny at times feels both banal and misjudged. The playing of a scene where she calls a suicide prevention helpline for the big LOLs would be anger provoking if it wasn’t so tedious.
At the centre of the production is a very different version of Minnie performed by Rona Morison. She gives a hugely energetic and meticulously detailed portrayal of a precocious teenager who can burble out a sentence about fucking and follow it straight afterwards with one about drawing without any variation in emphasis. Her performance shares a lot in common with Selma Blair as Cecile in Cruel Intentions, particularly in the cringe-worthy sex scenes with Ryan Phillippe’s Sebastian. The depressive streak present in Bel Powley’s film portrayal of the teenager is deleted in favour of barely supressed, almost manic energy. As a performance it’s strong, but the weakness of the depiction is that it fails to convey the vulnerabilities or complexity of the character and her situation.
The character of Minnie’s mother, Charlotte is also streamlined. Rebecca Trehearn is given very little with which to work, her presence reduced to brief appearances often striding purposefully across the stage to exit it as quickly as she came on. It gets across the point that she is largely absent, but in the moments where she does appear she is too conventionally mumsy to provide the additional components the story needs to more fully make sense.
In the book, one of the most revealing scenes is a seemingly inconsequential moment where Charlotte insists on seeing her daughter in a piece of her own swimwear. Against Minnie’s wishes, she barges into the bedroom, looks at her daughter up and down and makes a derogatory comment about how she at least had a good body at Minnie’s age. It’s these moments of cruelty and callousness that contribute to understanding Minnie as a human, not just as a girl in a story containing the word ‘fuck’ repeatedly. In minimising the periphery characters, particularly her mother, the story becomes a series of episodic moments that suffer from having little to cement them together into a more interesting structure.
What we have instead is a production similar to the un-smudged image of the Seventies itself. It’s attractively packaged – Riley’s forced perspective set design centred around a bed is colourful and clever – with swirling projections (Nina Dunn), and relies on its audience finding the subject of sex somewhat shocking for the jokes to land. The problem is that once you’ve dwelt on the idea that this is a story about a very vulnerable fifteen year old having sex with an adult who should be looking after her, it’s almost impossible to appreciate the pretty patterns without seeing it for what it really looks like.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is on at the Southwark Playhouse until 25th March 2017. Click here for more details.