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Writing for CurtainUp NYC Weather
|A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
It's no wonder that Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Amelia Lowdell captured the attention of London theater audiences (and critics) as the "gals," Boo and Marie, in Rebecca Pritchard's new play. They are engaging, fearless, and deceivingly precise, exhibiting a blend of harmony and dexterity a director can only pray for.
When Boo and Marie step onstage, it's with a hint of girlish nervousness, but their case of the giggles is more likely induced by having just smoked a spliff (as joints are known in East London). Ms. Duncan-Brewster spent the last two seasons on a British television series called Bad Girls. It would have been a perfect title for this show as well.
This is a story about young women who have fallen through the gaping cracks in urban society: families that are indifferent at best, abusive at worst; schools that don't educate; prisons that don't rehabilitate; etc. They differ little from their American sisters other than in the words they use to express themselves.
Boo and Marie have come to tell us about their life and that of their four spars (friends) in a posse (gang) in the East End neighborhood of Hackney. It's a world of gear (drug) filled nights spent dancing at their favorite raves, and of days spent grafting (shoplifting) while knackered (exhausted). Snagging a Yardie (a Dread, i.e. Rastafarian, drug dealer) is for them the bee's knees. You get the picture.
When Marie glasses (sticks the raw end of a broken beer bottle into the neck of) Wendy, the leader of a rival posse, and lets Boo take the blame, the story heads off in a different direction. With Boo in prison for two years for "wounding with malicious intent," and Marie, now with child, starting to get her life in order, they come to consider what it means to have friends, and to be one.
There's obvious talent in Rebecca Pritchard's writing, but despite the terrific efforts of the two performers, this play never really coalesces. Put more straightforwardly, we just don't give a damn about these people. Considering the accolades this play received in London, perhaps this is one of those works that just can't overcome the voyage across the Atlantic. More likely, it's a case of exaggerated enthusiasm. While she has a knack for catching apt dialogue, Pritchard hasn't accessed the underlying humanity in a compelling way.
Even the blatant narrative by which the scenes (many of which are pointed, funny impersonations of the other members of the posse) are stitched together doesn't convey much understanding. Certainly these are tough characters, but just as surely there are portals that afford insight into their psyches. Ms. Pritchard writes from the outside looking in, and nothing suggests she ever cracks the surface.
Once Boo is incarcerated, the characters' thoughts are conveyed through the content of letters. Although nicely staged by Gemma Bodinetz, and lit by Frances Aronson, these scenes suffer from an artificiality that keeps them from resonating. Letter exchanges can be a useful if not terribly original theatrical device. But here they are implausible. How are we to understand their eloquence when the writers are supposed to be so unschooled as to be unemployable? How did they lose their street-smart vernacular?
Finally, a few grumbles about the set. Originally designed by Es Devlin (who also handles the costumes more successfully), the set was adapted for the MCC space by David Korins. It strikes me as work that is artful, on the one hand, functional, on the other, but almost totally unrelated to the play it is presumably intended to support. A gridded back panel contains strips of light that evoke movement through lanes of traffic. Four translucent trunks, each with a different color of light inside and a switch to turn the light off and on, seem at first intended to represent the other four girls in the posse, but do not integrate into the production in that way.
We are anxious to see the promising and acclaimed theater London has to offer. We are pleased when a company like MCC brings it to our shores. But sometimes we are left to wonder why.