Girls Like That (Tarragon Theatre)
The more I think about this fantastic ensemble piece about teenage girls dealing with the age of slut-shaming gone viral, the more shocked I am that it was written by a man. Playwright Evan Placey captures the complexities and contradictions and crushing, inescapable pressures of girlhood with such painful authenticity that it’s almost telepathic, especially considering that the great devilish triumph of girl-on-girl crime is that it sneaks so smilingly under the radar. An across-the-board stellar ensemble of young (but thankfully not actually teenage) actresses brings this tense, funny, brutal story to life with vulnerable honesty and irresistible energy. I particularly liked Rachel VanDuzer as second in command to the Queen Bee, perfectly embodying the passive culpability of a joiner and transitioning brilliantly to play assorted male roles along the way (her Scottish accent is also possibly the trickiest of the refreshing array of regional UK dialects on display). Esther Jun’s direction is vibrant and engaging with excellent pacing and thoughtful use of space on Shannon Lea Doyle‘s utilitarian set. She also gets a key assist from choreographer Alyssa Martin whose work is performed with awesome intensity by the cast in the thrilling dance breaks that serve as transitions and punctuation. In a single act, Placey manages to tell a story specific to girls of this generation while also touching on the broader female experience, feminist history, the societal hypocrisy that informs these girls’ behaviour, and even a little bit about male culture and how the events of the play affect the boys in the school. It’s this wide lens that gives Girls Like That its most lasting impact. While the critical observations made under Placey’s microscope about how girls hurt each other are sharp and true and made all the more heartbreaking by his and Jun’s and the cast’s insightful refusal to villainize the perpetrators (the point is that we’re all the bullies as much as the victims), the play’s final scene zooms out to a reality that we cannot afford to lose sight of: no matter how divisive girl world gets, we have to face the real world together.
Girls Like That plays until May 27th. Get your tickets HERE.
Annie (Mirvish Productions)
And then there’s Annie, a classic musical that’s either about a plucky young woman whose kind heart and indestructible spirit teach a lonely man the value of love or about an irritating kid who gets a lucky break and is all of a sudden happy because she’s rich. The West End production currently playing the Ed Mirvish Theatre is definitely the latter, complete with an ear-piercing young lead and supporting adults who appear to have no interest in locating any depth or arc for their characters. Alex Bourne and Carolyn Maitland at least sound good as Warbucks and Grace but the much-advertised Lesley Nicol is a disaster of a Miss Hannigan, wasting every inch of that delicious role with a performance that’s barely coherent let alone rich in either humour or humanity. The strong adult chorus battles valiantly (Katie Warsop stands out) but you know things are desperate when “Hooverville” is the best number in a musical with this many legendary tunes. The dynamic Matthew Hawksley is the lone featured player who brings much energy at all to his performance, filling the spaces between Rooster’s lines with detail and presence and only occasionally losing his way in the lunacy. I like Annie; the text could use some sprucing up (a few easy line cuts could almost entirely excise the casual misogyny no muss no fuss) but the story is solid if conscientiously told and the songs are classics for a reason. But this production is soulless, copying its quirky kid aesthetic straight from Matilda (that puzzle piece set is just plain lazy), scaring the daylights out of the poor pup recruited to play Sandy, and missing the point of Annie altogether. Little Isobel Khan hits most of her notes and all of her marks with precision but I don’t want precision in Annie; I want messy, honest, sing-from-the-gut, love-me-as-I-am enthusiasm. Annie is all heart, this production is just show.