Monica Dolan’s debut play, transferring to Bush Theatre after opening at the Edinburgh fringe, probes into our relationship with child sexuality and sexualisation. It does so from the perspective of psychotherapist Tessa, played by Dolan herself, who tells us her client Karen’s story. Karen is the mother of Lila who, at the age of 8, is given breast implants with Karen’s permission.
Dolan’s script does its best to avoid immediate judgement of Karen: using Tessa’s role as Karen’s support system, it instead approaches the topic with a desire to understand and analyse the motivations behind her actions.
One of the ideas Dolan churns up is the myth of childhood innocence, the idea that children are untainted versions of what they will become, devoid of all of which makes fully grown humans unsavoury and imperfect. Lila’s decision is her own, however ephemeral, under-researched or misguided we think it might be.
Dolan astutely prods at the likely response of the media were this to happen: public outrage, tabloid fantasies, and the vilification of the mother. Tessa is critical of such a response. By demonising the mother, we feel absolved, comforted that we would not have made that decision, that we are separate from such madness, and are not in some way part of structuring a society that scripts behaviour like this (though perhaps not as extreme) on a daily basis.
However unlikely you might find the scenario (which includes a crude go-around by locating the surgery in Brazil), that’s sort of the point. This is a thought experiment, that offers an extreme to shine light on the everyday. It unearths much and is done with a great deal of intelligence and a ton of empathy.
Dolan’s performance as Tessa is magnetic. As sporadic phone calls from her family interrupt her monologue, she reveals her own inner battle with what breasts signify, and how her analysis of the situation is informed by her personal life.
These telephone calls, however, are the only hint of dramatic action, with the rest left to be recited from the therapist’s chair. Because of this, the production becomes a bit static, even with Dolan’s brilliant delivery. The role of the audience Tessa is confiding in also remains mysterious. She claims she is in between clients and speaks directly to us, but our role is left undefined. This ends up jarring with her intimate conversations with her husband on the telephone, as it is unclear if she wants us to hear them or not.
Tessa concludes that Lila just wants to grow up, and for Lila that means having big breasts. She reads this as many things, including the early sexualisation of children. But what The B*easts provocatively exhibits is society’s pattern of defining adult women by their bodies, valued (or dismissed) based on to their sexual appeal to men.
The B*easts in on until 3 March 2018 at Bush Theatre. Click here for more details.