Girls Like That – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Saturday 20th July 2013, reviewed by Vicki Galloway-Place …
“Us girls stick together”
There is a stigma attached to youth theatre, like it’s not going to be very good, or it’s going to be an audience full of proud mums, dads and grandparents that don’t really understand what’s going on but are there to support their children. I don’t know where this stigma has come from. But if you’d been along to see ‘Girls Like That’ that stigma would certainly become unstuck!
It’s always a treat going to watch something at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and it is a theatre that has a very special place in my heart, having performed there myself at the opening in 1990. I remember getting told off by my primary school teacher for yawning in the middle of the performance (maybe that is where the stigma comes from?)
The Playhouse is not afraid to be different, to put on new pieces of work and to invest in its own. It is refreshing to know that they Playhouse runs ‘Open Season’ a month long community showcase for a whole host of performances by the local community young and old. What’s even more refreshing is to know that their youth theatre group runs all year round, working on performances, scripts, acting classes, getting to grips with the technical side of performances and much more, and it was this youth theatre group that staged ‘Girls Like That’. Directed by the Gemma Woffinden, the Youth Theatre director, you would think that both the director and actors had an array of professional experience. In fact I have seen much worse by companies that call themselves ‘professional’.
There were no awkward silences, no cutting over lines, no panicked stares as someone wills someone else to remember their line. This piece was polished and performed to an exceptionally high standard.
As any of us facilitator/director/teachers know it is a long, arduous journey to put together any performance piece, let alone a full length two hour script complete with interval. Sometimes in the end you just have to hope that the kids pull it out from somewhere and get through it. This didn’t feel like the actors had to ‘get through it’. It felt incredibly well rehearsed, with some clever techniques and some lovely technical support that told the all too familiar story of how damaging social media can be.
We are brought into the lives of the St Helens Girls – a group of girls that have grown up together since meeting at nursery. As they get older and develop their own identities moving into high school, some of the friendships become strained. Through clever narration to the audience, the girls tell of their insecurities and jealousies of their fellow ‘friends’. We are shown how nasty girls can be towards other girls, and that the same actions taken by males is viewed very differently (the main storyline concerns a circulated picture of a naked girl, culminating in hateful name calling; but when we see what it might be like if a boy did the same he is held in high esteem as if he is a hero – very telling of the times and very sad on many different levels.)
Interwoven with this modern day story are flashbacks of women’s stories over time, from a woman working as a pilot in the second world war to a woman in the sixties, and a go getting office worker in what I think was the eighties judging by the shoulder pads! All of these women’s stories are told through the ensemble cast who adopt multiple roles, using choral movement and vocals, and synchronised movement, and address the audience directly.
Initially I didn’t understand the flashbacks and didn’t think that they served any purpose in what was already a relevant topic. I then came to the conclusion that it was a message to us women in the audience, to embrace our freedom and remember how the struggle for women’s rights has done so much for us – which it was, and which it did … but it was more than that, as became clear at the conclusion of the play.
So, Scarlett is now in high school and a naked picture of her has gone viral around her school. Everyone is pointing and staring, making her feel uncomfortable, and shouting out some pretty horrific words. This is a situation that, as a teacher, I have come across too many times in the climate of Facebook and Twitter. The use of social media to hurt and bully and incite hatred is all too common in our society these days, and you see the hurt and upset in the eyes of Scarlett. This young actress will go far.
The director made a bold decision to have Scarlett say very little throughout the play until its conclusion when everything is tied up in her monologue. But until this point you see Scarlett’s reactions through her facial expressions and body language alone with the word ‘sure’ muttered a handful of times. I think it is one of the hardest things to do as an actor – be on stage, say very little, but still draw the audience in and make them feel empathy for you. This bold decision paid off – largely due, I feel to the strength of the actress playing Scarlett.
Gemma credits the writer Evan Placey with providing her with a ‘gift of a script’ but you could have the most powerful words in the world and if they’re not performed in the right way, if Scarlett’s story and the story of the other women were not played out by optimum use of the stage, by clever ensemble techniques and magical moments such as the flashes of light from the circles on the floor whenever a text message was received, then many of the overall messages would have been missed. If Gemma had chosen to have Scarlett speak throughout (which she could have, as lines were not specific to actors). Then different messages would have been told and I don’t think my empathy with Scarlett would have been as strong.
Gemma has clearly gained the trust of these young actors and they have worked together to perform this new, relevant piece of theatre – the mutual trust is evident in the enthusiasm of the performers. Gemma placed her trust in the cast and they repaid her by performing a high energy piece to a high standard.
Did I want more male actors? Yes, possibly. Did I want more physical theatre? Yes, but that’s just me and my set ways and it’s great to see something different. However there was a cracking fight scene that was very convincing (I am a stickler for fight scenes looking realistic). I believe I wrote a review not that long ago about a very well-known company that I love that had a very bad fight scene – The one in Girls Like That was one of the best I’ve seen.
There is usually a moment that sticks in your head more than any other when you walk away from a performance. For me it was the realisation that the flashbacks were in fact the women from Scarlett’s family history that she was researching for a school project. The four women subtly highlighted on the balcony of the audience as Scarlett explained her female heritage was truly haunting – very clever by both the writer and the director.
So I end this review remembering that in spite of my monthly moans, and constant griping about how difficult it is being a woman – I am re-liberated (if that’s a word) I am strong, I am proud and I am humbled that it was a host of young female (and four male) actors that led me to this reminder. That we should stick together; together we are stronger. We shouldn’t be jealous of our fellow females, we should embrace our differences.
Moreover as theatre audiences we shouldn’t be judging youth theatre we should also be embracing this – The future of our theatre is in these new hands – male, female alike – these new hands will mould our future as those that came before us also did.