You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy, Caroline Horton’s perfectly formed one-woman-show, has won her universal critical acclaim, an award from The Stage and a handful of nominations, and it’s easy to see why. A tender drama of love and loss, a nostalgic glimpse into life in occupied France and a moving tribute to a marvellous character, Horton’s play is immaculately judged and utterly irresistible.
Horton plays the role of her own grandmother, performing a script she developed with the help of that formidable woman and a collection of letters found stowed away when she was moved into sheltered accommodation. Christiane Horton (Chrissy) had the kind of ordinary life that only the most extraordinary people can look forward to: facing chronically poor eyesight, a vacillating lover, the Nazi occupation and all the paper waving bureaucrats of post-occupied France to follow her heart to the altar. We follow her from blushing teenager over seven years of trial and tumult, watching her overcome every setback and bask in every victory with infectious vivacity and an indomitable will.
Horton’s skill is not simply in catching her grandmother’s ticks and idioms, but of reverse engineering the woman she knew into the woman she knew had existed. Horton seems to have found trace elements of Chrissy in herself and developed them into a compelling portrayal of her prototype. Horton’s Chrissy seems to be old and young all at once, both the aged woman with a twinkle in her eye and the young girl of her memories. There is an owlishness which you can believe was always there, an obstinate self-assurance, but also the softening and wisdom of age. Horton’s performance never feels saccharine either, her Chrissy is too full of intelligence and risqué wit.
Chrissy spent most of her life in England, and Horton develops much of the play’s humour from her grandmother’s observations of the cultural and linguistic differences between England and France. The precision and warmth with which this is managed is admirable: nothing feels cheap, nothing seems cruel and nothing seems rose-tinted. For all the cherry blossoms in the orchard, there are the bodies of Chrissy’s countryfolk too, mown down by Nazi bullets. If one or two moments drag ever so slightly, it is only in comparison with those that fly by with such ease.
The design finds magic in minimalism. There is a touch of Jean-Pierre Jeunet in the few suitcases which open out into tiny cityscapes, into a BBC radio microphone or a cloudless sky. It’s a neat metaphor for the packing away of memories, and the play’s loose setting within a train station is a poignant reminder that its story was inspired by Chrissy’s own packing for her final departure. The closing montage of images and footage of Chrissy herself is a masterful touch, providing both closure to the piece and an affirmation of how vividly Horton has brought her grandmother to the stage.
With such a personal work it is easy to forget the contribution of directors Omar Elerian and Daniel Goldman, but theatre this polished and vibrant doesn’t direct itself, and they warrant significant praise. Ben Pacey’s lighting is also skillfully underplayed and adds much to the slight haze of memory drawn across Chrissy’s tale.
Reading that Christiane passed away in 2011 is genuinely saddening because Horton seems to have brought us so close to knowing her, though it’s heartening that she lived long enough to see her granddaughter’s brilliant gift. It is this which shines through most strongly: that Horton’s play is a rare and lucent gift from one generation to another, prepared with love and artistry in equal measure. It’s a gift to its audience too, in giving us a voice and a life that we would never have known: ordinary enough in the stream of history, but extraordinary – not like the other girls – when viewed up close.