“Exploring what it means to be an intelligent modern woman”

Sîan Bayley finds much to praise in 'Girls Will Be Girls' at the BT Studio

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Girls Will Be Girls is an exciting piece of new writing by student Ella Langley premiering at the Burton Taylor Studio before its run at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer.

Supported by an all-female production team, and directed by Hannah Chukwu and Ella Langley, it is an honest and touching account of the lives of seven girls on the verge of adulthood, but still constrained within the school bubble, as they await the results of their application to Oxford University. As Langley explains: “in this environment, in this school, and in that rare moment right before everything changes, girls will be girls.”

In many ways an updated female version of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, Langley’s play centers on what it means to be a clever young woman about to enter the real world. Its account of what it is to be a 17-year-old girl is often achingly familiar, and the play’s explorations of difficult issues such as eating disorders, academic pressure, racism, and sexism should be highly commended.

The play is somewhat constrained, however, by its setting in what appears to be a private single sex school with a clear history of Oxbridge applications—not exactly a universal female experience—and its somewhat outdated Georgia Nicholson-esque humour, which does not always generate the laughs expected.

Nevertheless, many audience members noted the accuracy of the characters and situations presented at such a school, and the play’s heart and spirit more than outweigh any minor issues with its privileged context.

Langley’s girls are a delight to watch on stage, and even the more off-putting and abrasive character of Rose, brilliantly portrayed by Lara Marks, is revealed to be just as self-conscious and vulnerable as the other girls in a notable scene in every schoolgirl’s refuge, the toilet cubicle. It is the strange beauty of this scene, juxtaposing the troubled girls with the more lively and confident characters as they laugh at lunch about their old school days and Oxford interview experiences, that shows the different and opposing sides to being an intelligent teenage girl in modern Britain.

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Aided by notable songs that celebrate femininity such as ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ and ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’, but often with a slower rhythm and sadder tone, the play’s music likewise captures this tension between girlish freedom and existential crisis. This ultimately culminates in a powerful monologue by Natasha Sarna as Reece, attempting to explain her rash behaviour to her teacher as she meanders through her own thoughts and feelings about the school institution. Here she challenges whether her teachers “have any idea what girls are doing to get their grades”, which contribute to the reputation of the school more than to the girls’ own development. A beautifully written piece of prose by Langley, full of exciting and original imagery as well as powerful emotional content, performed with real feeling by Sarna, this is the highlight of an important and thought-provoking work.

As the lights go down when the girls begin to open their letters, the play ends, but the experience continues. Audience members are invited to go downstairs to share their own messages with their younger selves, and what they wished they could have known then. It is an odd experience to revisit such a turbulent and awkward stage in one’s life, but a necessarily important one. This play celebrates what it means to be an intelligent modern woman and embraces flaws with a sense of humour and sincerity that is often lacking in the media and mainstream culture.