Poor Michelle gets its name from the most millennial reference there could be – a hashtag/website dedicated to Destiny’s Child’s most-forgotten member Michelle Williams. As the company moved from Durham to London, they went from feeling like Beyoncés to feeling like Michelles. That sort of cultural citation and self-deprecating irony is rife in Thick Skin, but the play also reflects on the struggles of being a young artist. It playfully yet piercingly examines how self-promotion and success narratives can reveal prejudice and an ignorance of one’s own privilege.
There’s a feigned innocence that coats Caitlin McEwan’s frank, shrewd writing. Best friends Pete and Jess, played by Harvey Comerford and McEwan herself, have millennial aspirations to be ‘young creatives’. Pete meets Naomi (Hannah Azuonye), a jazz singer, and convinces her to be the subject of his new documentary, while Jess struggles as an aspiring comedian. Oli’s character is less clear, but this might be because of a last-minute change of actor in the production at the New Diorama.
When the road to success and Shoreditch-house membership isn’t as straightforward as planned, both Pete and Jess display a profound entitlement, unmasking their ignorance and racism. McEwan craftily creeps to this revelation, endearing us to both characters and then disarming us. She gives a stunningly uncomfortable and wildly offensive stand-up routine that has a Lena-Dunham-like awkwardness to it. She describes her Asian ex-boyfriend, rolling off foul stereotypes and racist jokes as the audience’s discomfort becomes palpable.
Pete isn’t any better. He ends up challenging now-girlfriend Naomi about being mixed race, reducing her to her racial identity, and then forcing her to explain to him why he’s out of line. The cruelty that’s uncovered feels deeply sinister, like a Neil LaBute play, and becomes an insurmountable feature of both characters. They become enormously unlikeable. So when Jess attempts to make amends with a second comedy routine, one that’s more self-deprecating and frankly funnier, the gesture is a nice one but isn’t enough to fully redeem her. Yes, sometimes life may be disorienting, but as part of a generation with endless access to information, there is simply no excuse to be that offensive.
While the writing is complex, the production is more or less simple. Part of me thinks McEwan’s script would be better suited to film. Its London setting necessarily means traveling and public transportation, and scenes jump from location to location. A sweet-then-sour scene on a bus as Jess confesses to stranger Oli would benefit from a confined space and surrounding eavesdroppers.
The acting from all, particularly Azuonye and McEwan, is astute and nuanced. But while two mics sit on each end of the stage and act as places for Hannah and Jess to perform, not much else is done to define the space. It also misses an opportunity to use Pete’s camera, a documentary lens, to visually portray the degree to which Pete frames and objectifies his girlfriend.
Smart, funny, and overt, Thick Skin focuses most on its least likeable characters. It illuminates that the sense of entitlement attached to following one’s dreams (something often ascribed to millennials) stems from privilege, and is no excuse to exploit others or be casually ignorant. Thick Skin serves as a warning for white millennials, and (for a company that also falls into that category) as a way for Poor Michelle to examine the boundaries of their own art, now and in future.
For more information on Poor Michelle, click here.