Alcohol, chocolate and the ‘feel good’ genre of films, books and – in this case – theatre are all intended as a means of making us feel better about existence. Been dumped/sacked/spat at in the street? Crack open the bubbly and the Galaxy Minstrels, and get something heart-warming up on Netflix. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is about ‘feel good’ but I find there’s something about it that often makes me ‘feel bad’. In fact, I think we need a special German-style word to describe that specific sense of blueness brought on in relation to seeing or reading something that is meant to have the exact opposite effect – and how that blueness is then tinted with the added disappointment and embarrassment of knowing you’ve somehow missed the point or reacted to it wrongly.
Broken Biscuits by Tom Wells is ‘feel good’. Megan (Faye Christall), Holly (Grace Hogg-Robinson) and Ben (Andrew Reed) are three so-called losers waiting out the summer of the GCSE results by hanging around in Meg’s shed. In an attempt to remove their un-cool status they decide, at Meg’s suggestion/insistence, to start a band. You can fill in the rest of the plot for yourself (including obligatory Battle of the Bands theme) because it plays out pretty much exactly how you would expect the most predictable version of this plot to play out. According to the blurb on the Tobacco Factory website, the three characters are “navigating their way through growing up, sexuality, bullying, friendship and lad culture”. They do so with the same level of angst that someone would use to navigate a swan-shaped pedalo around a gentle lake.
Despite its billing as something of a bildungsroman, Broken Biscuits has its moments of true strife spread as thinly as buttercream, and then normally covered over with something sweet and palatable. It’s a show about teenagers, but its target audience – or best audience – are adults, probably parents, who would like to believe that their ‘teens’ are emphatically not getting up to no good. They are, on the eve of college, all virgins who are would rather hunt Pokémon than kiss a boy, and who have to ask for a definition of MDMA. Given a place away from the main house devoid of adult supervision they never use that location for anything more untoward than learning a musical instrument and discussing mood boards. There’s a little bit of conflict, but they all become best fwiends again before the 90 minutes is out and all are entirely accepting of the others’ idiosyncrasies. They are also conveniently (for the playwright and audience) able to be self-aware and self-reflective in order to mend their minor wrongdoings and construct better, longerlasting ties with one another. If only they would all go into politics.
If I remember it rightly (and I wish, shudder, that I didn’t) one of the prominent features of being a teenager is the ability to make shockingly ill-judged decisions. Others includes self-doubt, confusion and a genuine lack of confidence. If you were, for example as Holly is, too shy to talk to a boy, this wasn’t expressed by honest expositions of being too shy to talk to a boy, it manifested itself in doing anything and everything to avoid saying exactly that. You might genuinely believe you had tried to talk to them, and it would only be an outsider who could see you’d actually hidden behind a wall and pretended to hunt for an earring on the pavement. Most shy people, in reality, do not go around saying, “Hello, I am shy.” If they did they wouldn’t, you know, be all that shy.
The characterisation is also depressingly broad in other ways. Ben is gay, and so also effeminate and with a preference for sequins and wearing dresses. Meg is fat and so also bolshy and loud-mouthed. Holly is a lovable A*-achieving geek and so also wears glasses and finds it difficult to dance in public. Other reviews have commented on the realism of the characters’ dialogue in Broken Biscuits. Until about a year ago, I worked with teenagers. I hate to say it, but I don’t believe any of them talked like this. Save for a few good sweary phrases, a lot of Broken Biscuits sounds like a version of ‘teen-speak’ written by an adult based partly on memories of being a teenager and using (now outdated) slang. Contrast this with Diary of Hounslow Girl, which really does come close to replicating the way a lot of teenagers speak today, and Broken Biscuits feels a bit cringe-inducing at times.
And the point, of course, isn’t to feel awkward. The point is to feel good. So why does seeing well-adjusted young people with a strong and developed sense of self onstage make me feel bad? Perhaps because it seems to invalidate or negate the experience of finding life, both as a teenager and otherwise, as nothing like this gentle cookie-tin depiction. In the same way that advertising imagery can zap some people into catatonic escapist pleasure and for others throw into relief the gulf between the imagined and reality, the ‘feel good’ has the ability to only emphasise how little life is like this. Instead of presenting a view of the world that says it’s OK to not be OK, or it’s possible to come to terms with everything being very not-OK and to still be OK yourself, the ‘feel good’ often suggests that things are OK only when everything really, really is OK. When all the loose ends are gracefully knotted, differences are resolved and no one ever makes a genuine mistake they regret.
Sometimes, what really feels good is knowing it’s alright for things to feel bad.