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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Royal Court Theatre (Upstairs)


  Madison Lygo and Maya Gerber/ Ph: Johan Persson

Janey and Mimi are 10. They are best friends, and they room together at boarding school. Janey slings insults at Mimi and tries to steal her tuck. Sometimes, at night, when they think no one’s watching, she also gives her love bites.
This new work by EV Crowe is a savage and startling glimpse into the rituals, the humiliations, the passions and the power-play in the complex and often suffocatingly intense relationships between little girls. It would make pretty terrifying viewing for any parent on the cusp of sending their children away to be educated; as drama, though it is murkily funny and disturbingly compelling, it lacks structure. Crowe creates an arresting psychic mood, but it feels as though she’s still in the process of puzzling out quite what she wants to say – and how to say it.
Those who saw the emergent playwright’s recent contribution to the last season of short pieces presented by Clean Break – the company that specialises in working with women affected by the criminal justice system – will spot a recurrent preoccupation with feminine homosocial connection. In Doris Day, a two-hander only half an hour long, she introduced us to a pair of young female police officers whose ostensible friendship was marked by ferocious competitiveness and an uncomfortable sexual undercurrent. Janey and Mimi are those two women in the bud. They swear extravagantly and creatively. They commit small random acts of violence (flinging a tuckbox from a window, forcing another girl to take her knickers off and then do a handstand). As for what they get up to after lights out, it’s not all clear how mutually consenting it is.
In Jeremy Herrin’s taut production, designed with impeccable echoey, scholastic authenticity by Bunny Christie, there’s a frantic, desperate pitch to everything the girls do and say, even when they are most deliberately assuming an air of insouciance. When they call their parents on the communal phone, they speak in code to avoid their personal home lives being invaded and exploited by eavesdroppers. Mimi is trying to develop an eating disorder (anorexia, nicknamed “annie” in schoolgirl slang), as is the current playground vogue. And for all Janey’s brutal, often sadistic conduct, all her tough veneer, there’s a concealed core of agonising loneliness within her. Mrs B (Annette Badland), the dorm mother whose sharp eyes have detected the girls’ anxiety-inducing nocturnal activities, characterises her young charges as “creatures of the night” or “small dogs in packs or pairs, doing what small dogs do.” But is such bestial behaviour a rite of passage, or a product of an unnatural hothouse, single-sex environment? Crowe never really explores either option.
Instead, she gives us a somewhat tacked-on parallel to the mounting tension and female hysteria of the setting. Christmas is approaching, and along with the dreaded carol concert (Janey is wounded that her parents won’t be attending, but cannot admit it), the school play is in the offing. It’s a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and Mimi has been cast as John Proctor. The themes of false accusation and truth-telling emerge rather clunkily as Mrs B confronts Mimi, Janey and her informant Nina, one of Janey’s regular victims.
Nor does Crowe’s over-complicated time scheme, which slides back and forth between past and present, contribute much other than to render the action more difficult to follow. And yet this is writing that needles and troubles. It digs and prods cruelly at emotional wounds, rather than offering any forensic precision, but Crowe’s characters and dialogue are jaggedly intriguing and vital. What are her little girls made of? Certainly not sugar, spice or all things nice. As for Crowe, if we have to look to her future work to find out what she, as a playwright, is made of, I suspect it’ll be well worth the wait.

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