A First World Problem

Ai-ee! What do we have here – here literally being here, England, the UK?
A First World Problem. Great title, an inversion of the usual glib, `third world’ moniker applied to anything outside the leading western and US economies!

The problem as seen by Milly Thomas and director Holly Race Roughan is that of the education and development of some of the most elite girls in the Uk – the posh girls educated at Britain’s best.

A few years ago, playwright Laura Wade penned Posh, about the boys of the Bullingdon Club – Cameron, Osborne, Johnson et al – ex-Etonians and Oxbridge.
La crème de la crème, now running the country. Posh is about to become a film and Wade is quoted recently as saying nothing has changed, the structures are still in place for a Bullingdon Club mark two to be thrust upon us in the future.

And what of the girls from similar rarefied backgrounds? That is the object of Thomas and Race Roughan’s gaze – and like Posh, it is not a pretty sight.

`We are the world’s most expensive race-horses’, claims Thomas’s monstrous alter ego, Hebe – bright beyond belief with a barbed riposte ready for any and every occasion. Hebe is Oxbridge material but like a latter day female Ghengis Khan, she carries all before her – friends, family, teachers. She takes no prisoners. You can see a party leader in the making and it’s a terrifying sight.

Thomas is `supported’ by a selfless Molly Vevers as both Hebe’s victimised friend, Amelia, and Steve, a male teacher on whom Hebe has designs. The other leg of the whipping stool is Kate Craggs, playing a Hebe friend, Lydia, a boyfriend, Hugo, and Head Teacher, Miss Broad.

They all do a magnificent job but it is Hebe who mostly takes centre-stage – and A First World Problem is Thomas and Race Roughan’s creation. The two met whilst at Bristol University and are members of a Wolf Whistled, a London-wide young woman’s network.

Thomas is extraordinary, both in her playing and in the script she and Race Roughan have crafted. For it shows a brutality of language and ambition that should trouble us all. One’s reactions to Hebe can only be one of alarm and that is the clever and brave intention behind A First World Problem. For it is a warning, similar to that of Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag and Vicky Jones’s The One about the current state of feminism in this generation of British young women – a hundred million miles away from the feminism expressed by young women playwrights in the 1970s and 1980s.

This generation, judging by Waller Bridge, Vicky Jones and Milly Thomas have been bred on and witness to high levels of educational pressure (Hebe, Amelia and Lydia are under constant pressure to produce a return on their parents’ investment and `get into’ Oxbridge), bullying, drugs, food disorders and self-harming – all of which show up in Thomas’s writing with hurricane force. If Hebe is too clever by half for her contemporaries and teachers alike, I sometimes wondered, sitting in a similar aged audience and constituency in Theatre 503’s Wandsworth home, whether the play wasn’t almost too clever for its audience. Styled as a comedy, the hush and intake of breath as fashionable jargon, sexual practises and blunt truths (usually from Hebe) flew past us, was palpable.

There’s no doubting the skill and fury that has gone into A First World Problem. It’s a first rate, in every sense of the word, theatrical experience with a terrific, stylised production from Race Roughan.

Structurally, though, there is little reason given as to why Hebe turned from the sweet faced innocent at her interview – the climax to the play – to the devastatingly damaged personality we have witnessed for the past hour. We get a clue, one reference to her mother that may account for Hebe’s switch-blade approach. But one of the things that distinguished writing in the ‘70s and ‘80s was its capacity to give context to damaged personalities and societies.

A First World Problem is a linguistic blast and mirror of today’s female hedonism, nourished by celebrity, selfies, commodification, the internet. And, as surely, insecurity. I hope the text gets published soon and gets another life.

It deserves to be seen by many more, but my, it’s troubling!