Girls and Dolls is sharp, brutal, and thoughtful.
With a cast of just two, and a pared down set reduced to just a couple of stools, a black table, and a few hanging posters, Girls and Dolls has the making of an existential drama, relying on the raw skill of the actors and the true impact of the writing. Such focalised pressure leaves little space to hide, so the product really is an accolade to the cast of two – Emma Haran (playing Emma) and Sylvie Leggott (Clare).
The play itself, written by Lisa McGee, is set in 1980s Northern Ireland. With the current popularity of Derry Girls, the most recent work of McGee’s, we should perhaps not be surprised to find such successful and engaging writing: Girls and Dolls plays further with our clear love of the youthful escapades of girls, but this time, we are confronted with more of the sinister. Following Emma and Clare, the play looks back to that summer in which we find haunting violence, unexpected turns and, as a bit of light relief, some comedy.
Like so much of the theatre scene at the moment, it is not for the faint hearted. The posters warn of the play’s unsettling content, but it is with talent that it is really illustrated. The challenging subjects that Girls and Dolls centres around run the risk of feeling underappreciated and misunderstood, so the justice which Haran and Leggott do to the piece, performed with a sympathetic delicacy whilst never shying from brutality, is an achievement. Aside from the most obviously harrowing scenes, the play is laced with undercurrents of 1980s Northern Irish politics; it is a backdrop of painful reality which forces you to confront the hardships which had become life for so many, but shapes it into the personal and tangible.
There are certain scenes which particularly stand out. That scene in the bedroom, a recorded man’s voice echoing over the audience as we stare into the anguished face of Clare, that scene where locals sit side by side with the IRA clothed in balaclavas, and, of course, that scene in the treehouse. Each scene weaves its way tightly into the whole, drawing on connecting themes and ideas which only truly become clear at the end, something which seems to resonate all the more as we see the way the girls view their lives: all as secondary to a single event, all leading up to, and leading off from, the treehouse.
A good performance should inevitably leave you thinking well after you leave the theatre, and Girls and Dolls has undoubtedly done just that. The buzz of praise from the audience leaving the theatre was unmistakable. Stimulating and thought-provoking, it is a play which confronts childhoods, mistakes, politics, and pain.
This is a show which does justice to its complex themes as well as McGee’s skilful writing, and the fact that it is performed by new-comers to the Oxford acting is the icing on the cake. The quick shifting of character and lines, moving seamlessly between young girl to the old woman, between monologue and dialogue, is demanding, but well executed.
Girls and Dolls might leave you craving more of McGee’s profound writing, and for that you need look no further than Channel 4’s latest Derry Girls series, but the real value of this performance is in the talented cast and crew who have made an enthralling evening out of good acting and a couple of choice props. Although I don’t think many of us will be looking at treehouses with the same nostalgic fondness any time soon.