This is Carey Mulligan, in a blue box. Only, when you’re viewing it from the Royal Court auditorium it doesn’t look blue the way it looks blue here. It looks like the aftermath of an explosion at the spearmint Polo factory. You can see it better here:
See? A domesticated matte turquoise, a borderline nauseating shade that’s almost – but very crucially not – the colour of sexy 1950s fridges or open-top cars. The deviation towards a seasicky palette is important because it lets the viewer know this is not the homely haven it should be. There’s something wrong here, something – perhaps – in the mode of a Tennessee Williams memory play. The disjuncture between the photos of Es Devlin’s superb set design for Lyndsey Turner’s production of Girls & Boys and how it looks in reality suits a play that at first resembles one thing, and later another.
Dennis Kelly’s new play starts off as one-woman monologue by an Everywoman* character doing the plate-spinning thing with career, kids, marriage etc. She’s past the drugs-and-shagging stage and into the peacekeeping squabbling toddlers bit. Kelly scores a lot of laughs with the crowd by having the woman say ‘flaps’ and ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’ a lot of times.
He has her describe – and then repeat in case we missed the hilarity the first time – the concluding scene of her ‘slaggy’ days when she almost face-planted her own vomit whilst having sex on all fours. Instead of feeling ‘refreshingly frank’ or ‘celebratory’ of a ‘certain type of woman’ (or whatever the aim is here), these early-into-middle scenes are oddly boring. If it fills you with glee to imagine Carey Mulligan (CAREY MULLIGAN!!!) standing on stage describing vomit and fucking, then head along and get your thrills. But the shock value feels a bit cheap, like hearing a fourteen-year-old loudly saying ‘cock’ then glancing side to side to make sure everyone heard.
One of the woman’s main characteristics is that she’s not posh – a detail returned to frequently in the monologue. Her career success comes despite not having parents who could support her doing unpaid internships, she makes quips about the rah-rah shops of Chelsea, and she has a Laaaandan accent. Despite how talented and compelling Mulligan is as an actor (and this is demonstrated following the substantial plot twist), she is fundamentally miscast in this role [just come out and say it, why don’t you]. The accent – delivered monotone – sits awkwardly in her mouth, and there’s something at odds with her gestures, movements and look, and the idea of her as anything other than middleclass. It’s difficult to buy into the moments when she categorises herself in opposition to the ‘gorgeous’ (a set of models in an airport queue) when, you know, it’s Carey Mulligan on stage looking unmistakably like Carey Mulligan on stage, i.e. gorgeous.
A sense of normalcy or mundaneness – deliberately or otherwise – is the pervading feeling of thirds 1 and 2 of Kelly’s play. The structure settles into a switch-back-and-forth between the performer delivering long passages of description directly to the audience and periods when she acts out interactions with her children (acted by blank spaces – that’s a clue). These mother-child exchanges are of the ‘you’re not bringing that in here!!’ kind, the reality of caring for two small people who don’t behave the way a Boden catalogue photo-shoot would have you believe.
The format initially feels clever, especially as Devlin’s set is an endless source of fascination, its Pantone 338 wash becoming infected by spots of violent sunburnt oranges (Pantones 1585 and 1595) and red (Pantone 485). This colour-coded infection contains the subtlety the text lacks, with the explanatory and child-caring sections becoming repetitive fairly quickly. I’m willing to concede that this might be intentional, that the lull is a deliberate lull to make the eventual storm stormier. Because when the metaphorical lightning bolt comes, it definitely delivers a shock, even if it doesn’t crack the world open.
Girls & Boys uses the Royal Court much like a lecture theatre, aiming to educate the audience on an extremely important issue. It’s hard not to commend it for that, but this format of communication risks feeling patronising – to people of all genders. Not just in the sense that ‘being lectured to’ immediately implies a distance between the all-knowing lecturer and the in-need-of-educating audience (an audience that statistically will include those with lived experience of the topic), but because it so sadly stops believing in the potential of storytelling, written or performed, to communicate without having to dictate.
Euripides gets a name-check in the acknowledgements page of the play text, which if nothing else is a good Medea red herring for the people who note this before watching the play. Euripides, however, did what Girls & Boys does not. Which is to share a story with an audience, to create a sensory and emotional world of infinite complexity, and to trust in that audience to understand, feel and respond – because this is theatre and not a public information broadcast.
Girls & Boys is on until 17 March 2018 at the Royal Court. Click here for more details.
*‘Everywoman’ within the parameters of being a white, London-based career woman with two kids and a ready supply of ‘my wild twenty-something days’ to share.