The best theatre takes things that you think you know and reimagines them. What Typical Girls, written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and co-produced with Clean Break — a theatre company that works with women with lived experience of the criminal justice system — does, is to take elements of gig theatre and a conventional plot and force the audience to consider them in ways they haven’t before. As a show it is rough around the edges by design. It’s experimental in how it navigates the space. And it is very self-aware. In short, it is punk to its core and all the better for it.
Marie (Lucy Ellinson) is a well-intentioned idealistic music teacher who attempts to use music to help a group of women in a prison PIPE unit (Psychologically Informed Planned Environment) find their voice by performing a gig. She does this against the backdrop of a prison system that is, if not openly hostile to the arts, at least keeps it at arms length, reminding Marie that the programme can be nixed at any point.
Whilst the beats of the plot are well-known, it is the attention to detail that elevates the show. It is the way that Jo (Carrie Rock) seems to be struggling with the tension of wanting the best for the women whilst also being sceptical of the healing power of music. It is the way one of the prison officers oversees the music room with an air of hostility whilst standing in front of a poster that urges the women to “learn, live and hope”. It is the way that monologues and songs are used as more than just exposition but as joyous and defiant expression.
The strength of the performance is a testament to both Róisín McBrinn’s direction and Lloyd- Malcolm’s writing which captures how incongruous a concept like liberation is in a world that doesn’t celebrate it for all people. The sense that freedom and confinement are bedfellows is teased out over the course of the play, building to a raucous ending in which we see how Marie’s attempts to emancipate herself might imperil the other women (thank goodness the show doesn’t engage a saviour narrative).
Ellinson is brilliant as Marie, who is optimism and idealism wrapped up in a thin layer of self- gratification that is only fully realised at the end. Alison Fitzjohn’s Mouth delivers a performance that spans the spectrum of human emotions. When she is happy, her delight is transmitted to the world around her and when she is upset, it’s as if the light dims. Rock excels as Jo, carrying the slightly harried look of a woman seeking to do good in a system that believes helping humans is a science, not an art. Helen Cripps brings a fragility, neediness and menace to Jane, a woman who is both standoffish and in need of the community that the project brings. It is Lara Grace Ilori’s performance as Munch that is the most arresting. Her transformation from a woman who hangs around on the fringes, terrified to get involved lest she face rejection, to the charismatic lead singer of the group feels believable and seeing her singing about typical girls feels like an earned moment of unfiltered joy.
This is a play that asks some timely and essential questions. In what spaces are women allowed to exist? Is Mouth right to be more afraid of the outside world than the confines of the prison? Why is the baseline so often lauded as exceptional? And who decides what makes a typical girl? The performance answers those questions with a metaphorical megaphone and a literal punk band. It is political, uncomfortable and necessary. But most of all, it is so much fun.
Typical Girls runs at Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, until 16th October. More info here.