Three weeks ago I reviewed Cookies which, in part, looked at the business of cyber bullying after an explicit photo of a young girl gets leaked online. From the descriptions available about Girls Like That I had assumed that this was a play in a similar vein. However, while the subject matter may have similarities the approach is quite different and in rather a surprising way. Drama of this type tends to focus on the experience of the victim (it certainly did in Cookies) whereas Evan Placey’s interesting piece examines how the abuse comes to pass by focusing on the bullies themselves. And a rather unflattering portrait of a group of girls who are otherwise friendly and supportive towards each other emerges as one becomes a victim of the others.
The narrative in Synergy Theatre’s production tends to dart around in time rather a lot from when the group members are five years old to when they are in their forties and attending a school reunion so it is imperative to keep an ear on the introduction to each section as they are not chronological. We learn that a group of girls meet up first at a young age in primary school and that even then there is a clear pecking order – one of the girls explains how this works in the world of farmyard chickens and we are left in no doubt that the girls are equally ruthless. So it is that Scarlett finds herself towards the bottom of such a system and takes to using the word “sure” in response to requests in order not to alienate others. Unfortunately this proves her undoing when she says the same to the secondary school heart throb who betrays her trust by sending round a naked photo of her much to the scandalised response of the other girls in the group who either ostracise her or make her life a misery. Tellingly when a similarly naked picture of the boy emerges (Scarlett’s revenge? This is never made clear) the opposite reaction occurs. The other boys hail him as a stud and the girls ogle with barely concealed lust and accept that this is just the way things are.
What is slightly scary is that the girls in the group are not portrayed as heartless and cruel but they find themselves caught up in particular moments and become bullies almost accidentally. While this does not excuse them (they are still making specific choices after all) it does shed some light on how victimisation can often be a pack activity rather than the work of lone individuals. Scarlett is largely an imaginary figure to the audience and so we are invited to imagine her distress which is director Esther Baker’s method of providing an effective way of getting the message across. The piece is also played at speed with the actors (Leona Allen, April Hughes, Shazia Nicholls, Dominique Olowu, Carrie Rock and Danielle Vitalis) making a relay of the narrative and this gives the drama a sense of inevitability as events take on a life of their own. Interspersed throughout the play are four monologues delivered by April Hughes which comment on sexism across the 20th Century (they are set in the 1920s, 1940s, 1960s and 1980s). These are done well but I was rather given to wonder why they were all given to just one of the performers. All became clear in the last ten minutes but to say more here would reveal a nicely carried out plot twist which might spoil your appreciation of the play.
Katy McPhee’s design is very simple and a lot is achieved through the use of some simple white chairs which become, among other things, school corridors and the changing room at the swimming baths. The set is dominated by a giant portrait (presumably Scarlett) made up of dozens of photos of young women suggesting that it is possible for anyone to be a victim. The actors are all in school uniform and we are invited to imagine them changed and in a pool or in their finery on a wild night out. Again, this is a clever device as whatever situation they find themselves in we are constantly reminded that they are at base simply young girls. This week is Anti Bullying week and it has been revealed that 34% of children in England have been victims with a big increase in online bullying. Both Girls Like That and Cookies provide useful tools to get a discussion going about this worrying trend and between them shed light on perpetrators and victims alike.
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