Stage Door Review

Girls & Boys

Saturday, July 30, 2022

✭✭

by Dennis Kelly, directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson

Here For Now Theatre Company, Falstaff Family Centre, Stratford

July 28-August 7, 2022

Woman: “I met my husband in the queue to board an easyJet flight and I have to say I took an instant dislike to the man”

The latest must-see play has opened in Stratford and it is not at the Stratford Festival. It is the Canadian premiere of Girls & Boys by British playwright Dennis Kelly, staged as part of the Here For Now Theatre Company’s summer festival. The solo show is one of the most emotionally and intellectually gripping plays I’ve seen all year. Carey Mulligan may have originated the role of the nameless female performer at the Royal Court Theatre in 2018, but Here For Now Theatre’s founding Artistic Director Fiona Mongillo gives a superb performance that simply could not be bettered.

If you know the name Dennis Kelly as the writer of the book for Matilda The Musical (2010), you won’t really be prepared for the sharp turn away from comedy that Kelly takes in Girls & Boys. If, however, you have happened to see productions of Kelly’s plays in Toronto like Orphans (2009) in 2017 or Taking Care of Baby (2007) in 2016, you will know that Kelly’s principal themes are often about children but are not suitable for children. Kelly’s focusses are violence, family ties and the slipperiness of the truth.

For the first two-thirds of 100-minute-long Girls & Boys, you could very well think that Kelly has abandoned the darker themes of these earlier plays. The nameless female called “Woman” in the programme tells us with a great deal of humour how she came to meet her husband. She says she “took an instant dislike to the man” for reading a book in a queue and allowing a gap to form which was promptly filled by two models. Contrary to her expectations, he insults the models for queue-jumping and Woman realizes she has to completely reassess her first impression of this man.

After a blackout we find Woman miming taking care of two small children, one of whom, the boy Danny, is in the phase of seldom fitting his food into his mouth. Meanwhile, the other older child, Leanne, wants to bring a pail of mud inside to play with. Woman comically portrays a frazzled mother trying to cope with two uncooperative children at the same time and failing as Danny begins throwing food about and Leanne comes in anyway. When Leanne says an (unknown) naughty word to Woman, then Woman says she’ll tell Leanne’s father when he gets home.

These two initial sequences embody the structure of the entire play. Kelly has divided the play into 13 sections separated by short blackouts – some called entitled “Chat”, some entitled “Scene”. In a “Chat”, Woman speaks directly to the audience about events in the past and primarily uses the past tense. In a “Scene” Woman enacts episodes of the past involving her children and uses the present tense. The action moves steadily forward in time from when Woman first meets her husband until the time when Danny is four and Leanne is seven.

We find that Woman’s husband, also unnamed, is in the business of importing antique wardrobes from France and Italy for the British market. Woman describes with pride how she got a job as development executive’s assistant’s PA for a documentary film company. Though less glamorous and educated than all the others being interviewed, she gets the job out sheer chutzpah and belief in herself. Gradually, Woman rises through the ranks, links up with another driven colleague, forms her own production company, makes a film that garners lots of attention and starts making films about serious subjects that are considered for awards.

Working on documentaries about difficult subjects leads, we assume, to a jump Woman makes in Chat Five, which begins, “I think a lot about violence. Not because I want to or anything. I just think it’s such a fundamental part of our species that how can you understand us without understanding it?” Chat Five describes how Woman and her husband have one of their first big rows over their reactions to news on television about a mass shooting in a US school.

Woman asks, “Why are we all so shocked? I mean it seems to be a thing we do, this ... incomprehensible violence thing,” and she continues, “And isn’t it all part of the same, well male impulse, because in general, they are all – in general – well male”. Her husband is outraged, she thinks because she has brought up such a gruesome topic in their cosy family home.

From Chat Five on, we see that Girls & Boys is not going to be the satiric comedy about getting married, having children and getting a job that it seemed to be. Chat Five shows that Kelly has a much larger topic in mind that, like in his earlier plays, does have to do with violence, family ties and the slipperiness of the truth.

In the scene before Chat Five, Leanne accuses Woman of being “sexist” and treating Danny differently than she treats her. Though Woman tells Leanne she is not “sexist”, as if Leanne even knew what she meant, we do start to watch Woman’s interactions with her children more closely to see if there is a difference, and there is. We see that Woman encourages completely different forms of play with Danny than she does with Leanne.

In the next scene, Woman surprises us by commenting on her own acting. Kelly could hardly be more metatheatrical. If all this time we were wondering where the play was taking place, well, we discover it is taking place in a theatre. And with this Kelly expands the range of the play yet again – this time forcing us to look at the tropes of the one-person play as a genre.

This point and a single short sentence in the same scene cause the play to veer away from comedy and into increasingly darker realms. We begin to formulate possible endings, but nothing you can imagine will prepare you for what does transpire. We could easily say that the ending is incomprehensible, except that Kelly has actually been preparing the path towards that ending from the first lines of the play.

Unlike the previous attempts at realistic sets that Here For Now has used in its new indoor space, designer Bonnie Deakin returns Girls & Boys to the kind of minimalist abstract set that HFNT had used for its outdoor productions. It consists of one white riser with a smaller riser on top, a white chair and a small white table with a glass of water on it. That is all the play needs.

Fiona Mongillo, who made such a powerful impression in HFHT’s Whack! in 2020 as an historical Canadian axe-murderer, plays Woman with an acute intelligence and immense sensitivity that goes far beyond what one usually encounters in solo plays. British director Lucy Jane Atkinson has asked questions of the play that the vast majority of directors of solo shows ignore – “Why is the character telling the story?”; “Are we merely overhearing the character’s thoughts or is the character speaking directly to the audience?”; and, most importantly, “How do the events of the story affect the character’s telling of it?”

Mongillo has answered all of these questions and in a breath-taking feat of acting conveys these answers to the audience. Kelly helps the actor with the answers to the first two questions eventually, but Mongillo has embodied these answers in her mode of performance itself. She makes the audience feel that it is being directly addressed and, by the end of the play, we know why her character has spoken to us. For Woman the play serves as a form of therapy but it is also a warning and ultimately asks us to consider why the story she has narrated has happened as it did.

Most remarkable of all is Mongillo’s ability to portray layers in her characters’s narration, a skill that few young actors seem to have learned, much less mastered. From the first, even when Woman’s story is primarily comic, Mongillo suggests both an urgency and a kind of irony that inform Woman’s manner of speaking and moving. Mongillo gives us the sense that Woman has experienced some sort of traumatic event that tinges everything she say or does. This substratum of disquiet is important in making the sudden change of course in the play away from comedy both effective and frightening. Mongillo makes us feel that telling us the comic parts of her story is a relief to her character, while telling us the increasingly disturbing part of her story causes her to relive the pain.

I am not exaggerating when I say that no show now playing anywhere in Stratford displays acting of such depth of understanding. Kelly’s play itself is an eye-opener and we have to be grateful that HFNT has found precisely the right director and performer to present this compelling work with maximum impact. If you live in Stratford, book your tickets now. The play runs only until August 7. If you live outside Stratford, know that this is an enlightening play and a brilliant performance worth travelling miles to see.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Fiona Mongillo as Woman. © 2022 Terry Manzo.

For tickets visit www.herefornowtheatre.com.