On the floor, there are a series of neat linoleum black squares, divided by equally neat lines of black gravel. It’s a bit like looking at New York from above – a formulaic plan, highlighted by the gleam of neon. What’s missing, when you look at it, is its potential to make sounds: the crunch of tiny stones, the tap of footsteps, the horrendous, unidentifiable squelch of something being dragged on a shiny surface in pitch darkness.
This darkness seems to demolish the auditorium’s thin walls, and to conjure up huge, fearful spaces beyond them. Kieran Lucas’s sound design pops your eardrums, and when it returns, without warning, Peter Small’s lighting blinds you. Director Ali Pidsley’s production is an edge-of-your-seat example of the power of small spaces like the New Diorama’s auditorium. Together with writer Lulu Raczka, (reuniting the team behind Barrel Organ shows Nothing and Some People Have Talked About Violence) she’s created a wonderfully noirish, small-scale drama that’s set in an enigmatic dystopia.
It’s a bit like here, now. But sudden, unexplained blackouts happen, when the city’s grid-like order is replaced by lawless chaos. It reminded me of London’s postwar smogs (specifically filtered through guilty viewings of The Crown, which amped up the thick blanket of pollution into a dense fog, where people disappeared in violent accidents) but with a kind of gendered quality: the people who go missing and are found, their bodies in undescribed but evidently horrific conditions, are women.
I felt a bit uneasy with this threat of the mutilated female body, held out in the darkness: fear of random, gendered violence on the streets is something that’s been used to control women for centuries (how much safer to be indoors, knitting) and this dystopia doesn’t necessarily have an internal rationale for why it’s women, particularly, that are targeted.
Except, perhaps, that this story centres on two women (well, one schoolgirl, one woman) who use this darkness to tentatively form a kind of fierce sisterhood.
At first, the performance has a film noir-ish vibe, amped up by moody lighting and faint jazz: 15-year-old private schoolgirl Steph (Laura Woodward), immaculate in kilt, pigtails and pink ribbons, is an unlikely detective, interrogating hard, scowling goth barkeeper Bell (Bryony Davies). Their dialogue artfully picks apart the class differences that separate them, and make Bell clam up, tough and defensive as her big boots. She points out that if Steph went missing, she’d be on TV, points out the money spent on educating and protecting her. Then she goads and tests her, trying to knock off her 9-hours-sleep sheen, to throw some creases into her nicely pressed uniform.
Steph never lets go of her need to find out what happened to her friend. But her need to get answers forces her to play Bell’s games, and their interplay reveals the odd shaped, generational gaps between them. Bell is punk, or ’90s riot grrl in her anger and her ability to stare down life’s horrors and come out kicking. Steph is very much a compliant, anxious product of a more recent cultural mood: she practices mindfulness, prefers not to stare too long into the endless blackness – at first.
Raczka’s dialogue reveals so much about how women deal with living in a climate of fear: they tell stories, indulge in shared roleplays, enact violent vengeance on imagined men. It made me think of The Maids, with the all-important difference that these women are playing out their fantasies of revenge outside the omnipresent lens of the male gaze.
A Girl in School Uniform (Walks Into a Bar) ends somewhere that’s both satisfying and a little unresolved, caught between the endless possibilities of the world outside (both imagined and real) and the inside of the bar, which has softened into an unlikely cocoon. It’s a performance that starts with jagged shocks, unseatings, with cryptic touches like the half-joking title. Then builds, and settles into something warmer, something that affirms the power of creating new narratives, together, as a way of gaining control over the unfathomable darkness outside.
‘A Girl in School Uniform (Walks Into a Bar)’ is on at New Diorama Theatre until 17th February. Book tickets here.