It’s half four and I’m standing on the platform for trains to London. I’m going to review a play I only heard about three hours ago. Boys and Girls. No. Girls and Boys. I don’t know what it’s about yet. But the one thing I do know, is that it stars Carey Mulligan, the BAFTA award winning actress for An Education (2009) – the film that prompted my application to Oxford.
Dennis Kelley’s play – premiered at the Royal Court Theatre last week – acknowledges this appeal. It is one and a half hours of Mulligan, a one woman show. The production pictures, sent by the theatre’s Press Assistant, show Mulligan in striking clarity, cast in relief against a set doused in a deep blue. The pictures scream one thing: ‘We’ve got her!’. And it was for that reason that I found myself hurtling towards Paddington, braving the Circle and District lines to Sloan Square, to see a play I did not know.
Walking into the Royal Court I sensed a kind of charge. An energy was gathering, an excited static ready to break. The press event is packed. Catching a glimpse of the press list I made out Telegraph. A purple light reveals faces I recognised – a trendy woman with long, thick grey hair…but from where? The Times? But it is only when I got to my seat that I recognised that this was big. ‘GIRLS AND BOYS’ stood emblazoned across the stage. The show knew the weight of its name.
From the offset we were given what we wanted – the chance to witness Mulligan’s talent, intimately. The play follows an unnamed woman recounting how her “intense, passionate head-over-heels relationship” started “to go properly wrong.” She did so in her bare feet. Her hair was tied back in a bun, leaving her entire face to be seen. The result was that meaning was invested on the face, on expression. This stripping back quickly established the character as the funny, outspoken friend telling a hilarious story. In the first of a series of “Chats”, she talked about “this female friend” of her husband’s
Emma…And it’s not that I was jealous, because first off, that’s not what I’m like. I don’t do that. But the first moment I met Emma, I just thought – No.
There is nothing in the script that accounts for how the house burst into fits. It was the subtlety of expression after the “No.” Her eyes conveyed a dumb disbelief in the possibility she ever could have said, “Yes.” And we could perceive all this because she wasn’t just talking. She was talking to us. There were moments when I was convinced she was talking to me. She seemed to be looking straight into my eyes. And I’m sure everyone felt this. Being told that she got her dream job in another “Chat”, one audience member emitted a loud “Ah!” It was a response we would make to a close friend with good news. And it was. Mulligan, in a few minutes, had befriended us all, and we were hooked.
These “Chats” then flipped to familial “Scenes”, in which we watched Mulligan embroiled with her two children. The scenes varied from squabbling – “Stop laughing! I want you to apologise to your sister” – to artful negotiation: “the Shard made of mud does sound fantastic…but secondly you are not taking a bucket of mud in your bedroom.” What was stunning was that the children were never there. They existed as mime. And it was beautiful. One moment we watched Mulligan guide Danny – around four years old – out of the room. Her two hands appeared to lightly touch his back, creating the illusion of a presence, a weight. Their existence was so vivid that the play ceased to comprise one character. A whole cast appeared out of air.
It is easy to forget that we were mesmerised by the performance because of the writing. As the programme says, “[t]he Royal Court Theatre is the writers’ theatre. It is a leading force in world theatre for energetically cultivating writers.” The writing is so provocative, so arresting, because it is raw. One passage rang particularly true:
I had to make a conscious effort not to talk about him, because he was the only subject I was ever interested in. I was obsessed with his hands…[H]e had these ridiculously articulate hands like they’d been sewn on and had belonged to a surgeon or … a concert pianist.
But something else started to seep into the hilarity – an awful violence. Her husband’s reaction to her pregnancy leads to her “decid[ing] there and then to have an abortion. I was gonna get rid of, well … my child, because in my mind it had already become a child…But I was going to … kill it. To keep him. That’s how intense this was.” Amidst all the laughter she says: “I think a lot about violence…I just think it’s such a fundamental part of our species that how can you understand us without understanding it?”
What was so strange is that we didn’t clock it. We continued to laugh. I didn’t sense the “dirty little thoughts polluting our perfect nuclear family, infecting it with a darkness it should not have…” The lighting coated the darkness in a thick bubble-gum blue. The comedy blunted a sinister edge. We never saw what was coming – the thunderclap – the violent shock of one simple line that left my heart in my throat – the event that gives the play its name.
A review can’t spoil this. It would subvert the play’s genius. So I will work with a blank. I will try to make the invisible meaningful. At once we felt a shift. The play suddenly acknowledged itself as a narrative. Mulligan’s character had, all this time, been an actress in her own drama. The play is so successful because it plays us. The shock prompts us to re-read. Seemingly innocent details gain an awful significance. It is no coincidence that the programme is not so much a programme but a script. It begs to be retraced, to be re-analysed, re-assessed. Kelley and Mulligan have created a drama that not only strikes, but leaves us sizzling.