This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen 10/04/2017.
Croydonites Festival 2017 review: How To Be A Girl
A show that does what it says on the tin with humour, satire and power
When invited to review a production as part of the excellent Croydonites Festival of New Theatre 2017, the extra X chromosome that I’m sure I possess kicked in, and I opted to review How To Be A Girl (yes, the pink on the flyer attracted me). I mean, who could resist an Audrey Hepburn-esque image and review promo offering “satire… deeply thought-provoking… dark and funny”?
And the evening was all of that. Hats off to Zella Compton for a cleverly shaped play, and to the young cast of Year 11 girls who have explored and presented this project, and are taking it on the road. I wish every Year 11 could either see the show or, better yet, get to perform it. Compton has created a piece of theatre that is a stereotypical teen girls’ magazine come to life onstage. The cast of nine young women work through ensemble movement, monologue and recitation to show us the content of all the different sections of the magazine; but always coming back to a chorus of how How To Be A Girl enables the reader to be “hot, sweet, sexy, cute” – performed with choreographed movement and gestures.
The cast use ensemble speech and movement to provide fast-paced ‘advertising’ of the latest make-up, fashion – and rather more unsettlingly – bodily maintenance advice, all of which is guaranteed to make the reader more popular and confident. Particularly thought-provoking are the ‘letters to the editor’, in which individual members of the cast step forward in the role of a young teen (in fact, one character portrayed was nine years old), asking advice on when they should start shaving, when to say ‘no’ and (scarily) if they should have vaginoplasty.
A conflict is set up between the new editor of the magazine, a thoughtful, articulate young woman who wants girls to realise their potential through education, training and being true to themselves; and the fashion editor, who says that that’s all fine – as long as they have the best clothes, shaved legs, perfect make-up and are popular with the opposite sex. The two girls who played these roles were the strongest in the cast – making good use of their physical and vocal acting tools to portray well-defined characters as a running strand throughout the play.
A couple of stand-out theatrical moments included the rating of one girl from a nine down to a two as the cast in role evaluated her in more and more superficial ways to reduce her from a high achiever to a girl deficient in good teeth, great hair, a slim figure and trendy clothes – it made my heart bleed. The other was the whole cast depicting How To Be A Boy magazine and all portraying teenage lads as obsessed with technology, sport and… boobs. Suddenly the girls in the cast became louder, stronger and physically rangier: they were evidently having a lot of fun at this point and some of their portrayals were alarmingly accurate!
The core of the play is a slow reveal, which is what gives the piece its strength, poignancy and value. Sadly, in the hands of a young, theatrically inexperienced cast, it didn’t come across as strongly as it might. What frames the play is a mother buying flowers to visit her daughter in hospital. She speaks to her other daughter (us, the audience) to suggest we read a magazine How To Be A Girl while we wait for her to choose the flowers.
What emerges through the cast performing ‘letters to the editor’ in both How To Be A Girl and How To Be A Boy is that the daughter is in hospital because she took diet pills to be slimmer for the boy who fancies her. While the reveal worked dramatically with our realisation at the end of the play, the preceding scenes where the mother intervenes needed a more experienced and weighty performer to create the change in mood and command the stage to set the dramatic context more strongly.
At times, clarity of lines was lost due to the vocal limitations of the cast, and movement was not as sharp and as expansive as it could be. But this is not to take away from the fantastic work of this brave and beautiful Year 11 group. For them to have had the opportunity to confront, explore and challenge the perceived social expectations of girls – that appearance and popularity equal success – is beyond value. For them to be ambassadors of this message to young women – and young men – is of enormous importance. I wish them well in spreading the message far and wide.