Venue: Drama Barn
Following in the footsteps of this term’s first two productions, Essex Girls will surprise audiences with yet further ingenious manipulations of the traditional Drama Barn setting. As we were about to enter we were told that half of us would be in the main stage area for the First Act, and the others would be in the backstage dock. Making my way into the main area, I was seated on the blocks which had been used to corner off a section of stage, grimily decorated to look like a typical Essex council flat (trust me, I’ve been in too many).
On the mattress was Kim, single mother and frightened young woman, played with incredible subtlety by Clare Duffy. Kim spends most of the act sitting in silence, carefully avoiding the intrusive questions of her loud-mouthed friend Karen (Rosie Litterick). Litterick did a good job of making what could have been a pantomime character a very real, very accurate, very funny portrayal of the stereotypically crude, superficial and self-interested Essex girl.
The chemistry between the two worked perfectly: Duffy allowed Litterick the stage, whilst still drawing us in, fascinating us, and eliciting both our sympathy and our disgust at her attitude towards her life and her child.
Sound was an extremely important factor in this play. Throughout both halves, one can always hear the action on the other stage, an ambient cacophony of voices that, twinned with the close quarters, create an intimacy between the audience and the cast, and between the two halves themselves, inexorably linking the two (otherwise quite disconnected) narratives. The sound of the crying baby on Kim’s monitor is thoroughly disconcerting, and Sam Hill’s booming off-stage vocals as Mark are terrifying, and help to confirm the Kim/Karen story as domestic tragedy.
In the backstage area of the barn, the audience are treated to the appallingly accurate image of graffiti-ridden bathroom stalls where Kelly (Rose Basista), Hayley (Sophie Mann) and Diane (Elizabeth Cooke) are skipping class and desperately (yet unsuccessfully) attempting to use the occupied/broken toilets. As the girls peer out at us to do their hair the audience realises that they are sat behind the mirrors, looking on as voyeurs, as if staring into an interrogation room.
We look on as the girls each expound their theories on men, sex, menstruation and pregnancy, and are privy to a hilarious but frightening depiction of the ill-informed teenager that is far too common (I can assure you) in Essex youth culture. Each of the girls successfully walks the fine line between making the character their own and retaining the necessary elements of stereotype to remind us that they are all essentially the same: particularly commendable was Mann’s transformation from ditzy schoolgirl to downright bitch.
The idea of the audience experiencing the play’s two acts in different orders isn’t a gimmick: it is a vital and intelligent method of storytelling, typical of Joe Lichtenstein’s direction. It proves that all five girls are stuck in an abhorrent cycle, as either story could follow the other: each schoolgirl could be one of Kim’s children, just as easily as they could grow up to be her.
So even if the jokes are a bit one-note and the accents are grating (true to life), Essex Girls is definitely worth a watch, because really, that’s half the point. Innit.