Evan Placey’s “urgent and explosive” play, Girls Like That, won the title of Best Play for Young Audiences in 2015. Even though I might fall into this one-act piece of collective narration and didactic direct mode of address‘ typical age demographic, I have never cared for this play, nor have I cared for Esther Baker’s directorial vision. Now, before you grab your pitchforks and torches- yes, I know that the play focuses on some very important issues that really do need greater scrutiny.Yes, I think that it’s a very good idea to take productions such as these to audiences that might not normally get access to politically conscious entertainment. However, just because this play is politically conscious or, to quote Baker herself: “So relevant-there’s so much in the media about this stuff at the moment“, does not make it interesting to watch. Just look at the most recent season of Thirteen Reasons Why.
So, with that out of the way, lets take a look at the story. Girls Like That follows a collection of young girls, who, attend the same school and develop a toxic and ultimately detrimental ecosystem for one another to live in, where each individual girl knows her place in the pecking order. Things rapidly spiral out of control for one girl, Scarlett, when a naked photograph of her goes viral and she finds herself at the mercy of the other girls’ cruelty. The ensemble of girls that make up the cast are depicted as gloating over the supposed flaws in the circulating image, as each girl declares that “I feel good”, whilst marking out Scarlett’s weight or the shape of her body.
The play highlights how the widespread exposure of Scarlett’s image shatters the “fragile unity of the girls she has grown up with”. She is transformed into something of a social pariah; at one point in the play, she is described as “Scarlett the Harlot”. But it’s not just the girls that are thrown into chaos by Scarlott’s photographs. The boys, played also by the ensemble of female actors, are depicted as a gaggle of casual, insecure misogynists, lazily chatting about their desire to “tap” Scarlett whilst victimising one boy, Jay, who initially refuses to look at the photograph.
Later, a male pupil (Russell) has his naked photograph spread throughout the school, and since this is a play with a very specific message for a very specific audience, he faces no negative social consequences. The narrative eventually culminates in widespread victimisation of Scarlett until she moves school, leaving the “St Helen’s girls” behind. Here, she only faces continued harassment and the resurgence of her nude photograph, before delivering a monologue on the history of feminist activism and non-conformity within her own family.
Overall, this is not an imaginative production. Starting with the performance space, which is a black box studio with a minimalistic stage; haven’t we seen this sort of non-linear, ensemble piece performed in that exact space a hundred times before? The transitions between scenes are slow and awkward, with the six female actors having to drag several chairs up and down the performance space in an attempt to create the different locations. Still, despite the weak moments, I have to say that I really enjoyed the projections of social media onto the stage floor; these effects gave Placey’s dialogue some much-needed punch.
Girls Like That’s script is heavy-handed in its message. It comes across as didactic and preachy, constantly shifting between the petty, psychological bullying of “St Helens girls“ to other women in different periods, clashing against the overtly patriarchal values of their age. The most remarkable difference between these women of the past and the girls depicted in the present day is the lack of female solidarity. This point is hammered into the audience’s skulls like you wouldn’t believe. There is even a point in the play where one girl, in an attempt to humiliate Scarlett, yells “Speak up. It’s 2014, women have earned the right to speak”. (This is something that, I’m sure you’ll agree, no teenage girl has ever said while in the middle of an argument, ever. On top of this, the girls in the play appear to be very apathetic about the historic oppression of women, scornfully mocking one of their teachers for “babbling” on about feminism. Yes, Mr Placey. I think we get the message.
Girls Like That has its powerful moments, I won’t deny that. I found the deceptive tributes given by Scarlett’s bullies across social media, following the assumed suicide of their former friend, to be the most interesting passage in the play. The trials of having to live in a toxic, faux-positive culture are the most accurate, troubling and, unfortunately, unexplored moments of this play. Scarlett’s final monologue to be engaging, emotional and very well performed, but I probably wouldn’t rush to watch this one again.
Words by Rhys Clarke.
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