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A CurtainUp London Review
We follow two girls in particular, vulnerable ten year olds who are thrust into this environment away from their family. It is a challenging task for a director to find children capable of playing the intensity of these isolated youngsters but Jeremy Herrin is well up to the task.
In the dormitory at school, Mimi (Ciara Southwood/Maya Gerber) shares a room and bunk bed with Janey (Mimi Keene/Alison Lygo). In this claustrophobic environment and without the common sense of older girls to monitor behaviour, Janey belittles and bullies Mimi in an effort to control. The currency here is whether you will be her best friend or not. There is also a trade in secrets, who knows what about who.
The language will shock those not expecting it, as one way of giving others the impression that you are coping and cool, is to use the 'f' word a lot and to talk about having sex with other ten year old girls. This distortion of normal behaviour is brought about by the institutionalisation of these pre-pubescent girls. In one speech when Mrs B (Annette Badland) is phoning the headmistress to tell her of the difficulties, it is clear that the girls are almost feral. Mrs B has to write the Junior School Report and is having a problem in describing the situation in any way that is acceptable and also honest.
The scene where they are expecting phone calls from their families whilst trying to avoid someone else's parents getting through on the phone is telling. They glibly lie to the incoming caller claiming the girl they want to speak to is in bed and asleep. Desperate to talk to their own parent, they deny others this comfort. It's aLord of the Flies with girls.
Mimi tells her mother that she can only answer "Yes or No" to her questions because any other answer would betray her feelings to anybody else in the vicinity. So the predicament is that you want to say to your mother that you are desperately unhappy here and you want them to come and take you home but at the same time you cannot risk anyone in the school knowing that this is how you feel because they will tease and torment you. There is no privacy. Your letters will be intercepted and read and maybe destroyed by another pupil and you also know that, even if your mother did get to hear how unhappy you are, that it probably wouldn't make any difference. The family would still find it more convenient to have you away at school than living with them at home.
There is the attitude that they, now parents, went through it and so must the children, and also a belief that boarding school will turn them into independent, self sufficient adults rather than disturbed psychopaths. This point of view is reinforced towards the end of the play when Mimi's 19 year old brother Marcus (Ollie Barbieri) delivers her back to school at the beginning of the academic year reminiscing about what he did to people at school who cried too much when he and his friends wee'd on them. Brutal!
Bunny Christie's prison-type set uses soulless doors with glass panels and windows but an otherwise bare dormitory with a single bunk bed, a radiator and a locker. These windows and doors panels are lit red and yellow with noises off, roaring sounds and children's voices. A school production of The Crucible has Mimi playing John Proctor and kitted out in 17th century dress in a scene where she meets one of the governors (Kevin McMonagle).
The performances are credible from Mimi Keene as the assertive, domineering Janey and Ciara Southwood is remarkable as the bullied and confused Mimi. Another girl Nina (Fern Deacon/Ellen Hill) can see what is going on but the code of expected behaviour is not to tell anyone. EV Crowe has written an important and disturbing study of this frightening place where it is better to be bullied than it is to be alone.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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