In his latest stage review, TIM WALKER watches Girls and Boys at Royal Court Theatre, London.
Girls and Boys
Royal Court Theatre, London, until March 17
It’s rather an annoying thing watching a play you’ve decided isn’t any good – and, in my case, have a rather nasty two-star review already composed in my head – when, about a quarter of an hour before it ends, you realise you’ve completely misjudged it and it isn’t actually bad at all.
I was going to write that Carey Mulligan is a lovely, engaging personality, but the star’s hour-and-a-quarter long monologue in Girls & Boys about being a lippy, northern lass with attitude, who gets a good job in the world of television and finds herself a man, is all style and no substance.
Certainly, Es Devlin’s set design – she places Miss Mulligan’s unnamed character in a living room, where everything from the bookshelf to the sofa is eccentrically coloured turquoise – made me think that the director Lyndsey Turner must have turned to her in utter desperation and asked her to do something to at least make the show look memorable.
The trouble with Miss Mulligan’s monologue is that, up until that great moment of epiphany towards the end, there isn’t anything intrinsically interesting about it: any number of women would appear to live the sort of life her character does, and, for all the metropolitan humour and perfect delivery, it is singularly uninvolving.
What suddenly makes it involving is the tragedy that becomes apparent only at the end – and I’m not going to say any more than that or I will ruin the show for anyone who plans to see it. What is fascinating about this coup de théâtre that the playwright Dennis Kelly comes up with is how ill-at-ease it makes the audience feel.
It is necessary, all of a sudden, to recalibrate everything that has been said up until that point: what had seemed innocent takes on a darker, sinister hue. It makes all of the knowing laughter that had punctuated Miss Mulligan’s monologue up until that point – particularly from the women in the audience – look not knowing at all. It also makes it clear that what had seemed to be no more than a rather shallow account of a woman’s life, look like a rather ambitious treatise about how men treat women.
The silence that ensued when Miss Mulligan dropped her bombshell the night I saw the play was deafening. It says a lot about Mr Kelly’s skills as a writer – he has been best known up until now for writing the RSC’s Matilda the Musical – that he could inveigle his audience into thinking for most of the play they were watching something they were not.
I have to say, too, that he has, for a man, an extraordinary empathy with women.
The evening belongs, however, to Miss Mulligan. She delivers a performance of extraordinary emotional sensitivity. Few members of her profession could switch in the blink of an eyelid from being a light comedy actress to a high tragedian, but she manages it, magnificently. She is shockingly good.