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Fantasy, Friendships, and Feminism. Girls Like That

29 January 2017

Girls Like That

by Evan Placey

Group 64’s Young Company at Putney Arts Theatre until 28th January

Review by Mark Aspen

The on-line world is a dangerous place. Perhaps that is a truism for those of us who get half-a dozen fraudulent e-mails every week, but what if more than our bank-accounts were at risk?   What if the risk extends to our reputation, our friendships, our state-of-mind, our bodies, or even our lives? For young people today, their wide and continuing exposure to the on-line world may often be a perilous place.

Evan Placey’s play, Girls Like That, makes a hard and forthright examination of the psychological harm that can be caused by the misuse of on-line media by teenagers; misuse that is often sexual in nature, and usually by their own peers. Shockingly, in a 2012 survey, over half of the young people questioned reported being asked for a sexual image of themselves. Hence, the neologism, sexting, has entered the language.

Adolescence has always been a confusing place and coming to terms with burgeoning adulthood a minefield for boys and girls alike. The rapid development of technology in recent decades, in fields ranging as wide as from communications to birth control, and from photography to journalism, has not been accompanied by any development of a social or ethical code, and has in reality left the young unprotected.

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Against this background, Girls Like That concerns a group of six teenage girls, friends “for life” … they believe. A series of flashbacks show how thorough their childhood their friendship has bonded them into the “Girls of St Helen’s School”, until the basis of their friendship is severely challenged when a naked picture of Scarlett, one of the friends, appears on-line and, through the ubiquity of portable devices, everyone immediately sees it.

The plot of the play has quite a complex structure, and sliced with the girls’ childhood flashbacks, scenes referencing the lives of the generations of women in Scarlett’s family, and a number of mini-allegories, but the cast of Group 64’s Young Company coped with this well and worked tightly together in what is largely an ensemble piece.

The opening scene, partially in silhouette, made a powerful immediate statement, the ensemble cataloguing the verbal abuse they had received, hussy, slapper, slut, slag. In fact, much of the earlier setting and characterisation was way of choreographed movement, carefully thought-out. However, in the more detailed dialogue, there was evidence of first-night excitement with lines too hastily delivered, but once the group settled down, the action was well paced and expressive.

One of the allegorical themes was that of flocks of chickens; and an early image was of pecking-order, a good metaphor for the standing of each girl in the group: bottom of the order was Scarlett. Lily Teeling expressed well the vulnerability and repressed sensitivity of Scarlett withdrawing from the taunts, responding with “sure” when we knew that she really meant that she was very unsure.

And so the girls themselves move as a threatening flock, and the chickens cackle around, pecking and drawing blood. The group’s emotions veer at each development and these emotions are infective across the members of the group. The girls are not really sure what emotions they should feel: disgust or fascination, anger or admiration, prudishness or prurience; but their overarching feeling is clearly of guilt, but again is it guilt about ostracising their erstwhile friend or guilt about secretly envying her? This sense of conflicting emotions and of an unease that dipped into their collective unconscious was actively portrayed by the five friends, played by Harri Compton, Francesca Kablean-Howard, Eloise Mace, Tilley Wood and Hannah Tier. Tellingly, we eventually see their collective unconscious evolve into a non-collective conscience, when in a flash-forward to their adulthoods, we learn of their distaste at the idea of a Girls of St Helen’s School reunion.

In the writing of the play, the boy characters are placed largely in the background, although crucial to the impetus of the plot. However, this did not preclude some accurate acting by Leo Blanning as Russell, awkwardly finding out about life whilst coping with being the girls’ imagined Adonis; and from Toby Ward Smith as Jay, the one redeeming character, who tries to make an ethical stand and refuses to look at Scarlett’s picture, but his moral defences come under very heavy siege.

The social history context of the “gender gap” is illustrated by the flashbacks to the 1920s, 1940s, 1960s and 1980s of earlier generations of Scarlett’s family. It is worth remarking that these women are only described by what they wear. The brother of The Girl in a Flapper Dress (Eloise Mace) tries to rescue her from the clutches of a party in which well-heeled Charleston dancers smoke … tobacco! The Girl with Aviator Helmet and Goggles, robustly played by Sophie Brown, wards off the sneering of her male comrades in arms to show the she is perfectly capable of flying planes on delivery to the various World War II RAF airfields. The Girl with Flowers in her Hair takes the Swinging Sixties’ view and rebuffs her boyfriend’s proposal of marriage when she becomes pregnant. Hannah Tier portrayed this character with great ironic insight, foreshadowing the remorse that she would late feel in having an abortion. The gamine Harri Compton played The Girl with Shoulder Pads with empowered glee as she repulsed the unwanted advances of the high-rise high-power boss. Prian Caseley, as the boss, took the putting-down in a long emotional journey in a very short time as he moves from cocky to crestfallen to crumpled.

In these flashbacks, costume was cut back to a hint of the period, which sat well in the black box stylised approach to the setting, which used (an otherwise redundant) pair of metal steps moved on castors to indicate time and place changes. The design relied mainly on the lighting by Martin Jessop to sculpt the environment, which was achieved by a series of projected and often silhouetted cyc projections.

Directors Olivia Ball and Nicola Sterry have told well an incisive story that takes a harrowing look at how, when misused, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook et al can, gnaw into the very personal and sensitive tissue of the personality. The play’s theme range wide across the nature of friendship, the lure of sexuality, the anxieties of adolescence, the changing roles of men and women, the dangers of peer-pressure and the power of guilt. It does not give an answer to how we should protect young people against unprecedented pressures, but as a parable for the changing role of girls in today’s society it paints a poignant picture depicting the fascination of fantasy, the fragility of friendships, and the failure of feminism.

Mark Aspen

January 2017

 

 

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One Comment
  1. celiabard permalink

    Thank you for excellent review of this topical play involving the frightening use of social media. I wish I had seen it. Anne

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