Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London ****
The thing about Dennis Kelly is he likes to leave audiences with a moral question mark. Not for him easy platitudes. Or neat little conclusions. No wonder you’ll find him listed, amongst his credits, as author of the `book’ for Matilda the musical and the tv thriller, Utopia (also the comedy series, Pulling, on Netflix).
Ever since he first came to prominence, Kelly’s stage plays have looked with a penetratingly acerbic eye on the distaff side of our society and its social mores. Capitalism, sex and in particular violence have been some of his major preoccupations. There was for example, his Taking care of baby (2007) in which Kelly as narrator/author intervened in a story about infanticide and the possible guilt or not of the mother. The jury was definitely out on that one.
Five years ago, he penned The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas for the Royal Court, a bleak tidal wave of dyspeptic disgust at the moguls and `masters of the universe’ who have so dominated and are dominating our world, from the Howard Hughes’s to Donald Trumps.
Kelly’s message on that occasion was that emptiness as much as greed and lust for power was at their core.
Strangely, there’s a kind of emptiness even with the Medea influenced (but reversed) Girls & Boys which, on the surface of it couldn’t be more different.
90 minutes without interval, Kelly plays a blinder – a hugely, lubricious, expletive-filled entertaining tour de force performed by Carey Mulligan with equal panache and superb relaxation. Everything she does, you feel, is under control. You feel totally at ease in her company.
Standing hands in pockets, in beautifully designed slacks and shirt that seem sculpted to her lean body, as Kelly cheekily drops in, in an aside, this is her story told with her voice and because of that completely one-sided.
Then again, on the surface of it, this is a feminist tale to go with the tenor of our times, full of barbs against male power, male violence, some of it very near the knuckle.
If it hadn’t been written by a man, in past years, the female playwright would have been excoriated, as Sarah Daniels once was, for saying very similar things.
But in the svelte figure of Mulligan, in Kelly’s rollicking dialogue, always able to draw laughter from the teeth of destruction, even the male fashionistas of a Royal Court audience will no doubt have gulped but swallowed it down.
It’s that good – and it’s that deceptive, I think. Because when I came to think about it twelve hours later, a little suspicion began to form in my mind.
Kelly’s female protagonist gives us a running, often outrageously funny and detailed description of how she met her husband, their marriage, the children that came from it and her burgeoning career as a documentary film-maker. And it’s always her description of him that we’re receiving.
Interspersed with this quasi-comedy stand-up routine also come scenes where our heroine also acts out exchanges with her two children, Danny and Leanne. It comes as a terrible, shuddering shock, therefore, when she suddenly says, matter-of-factly, `I know they’re not here. Because they’re dead.’
The domestic scenes are both ghostly and a form of rehabilitation as the re-creation of new memories from which her husband has been eradicated as well as being reflections of young lives, cut short. At one point she declares she has stopped thinking about him altogether. But then, we have this very diatribe as proof that she has anything but forgotten him.
Violence is clearly Kelly’s preoccupation here – domestic violence and men as perpetrators of it for one reasons or another – here prompted by jealousy of a woman’s career success.
A terrible crime has been committed. Yet Mulligan’s rendering of it and her demeanour to the end scarcely falters. She is nearly – excepting one moment when she thinks she’s lost her daughter in a shop – cool, ironic, almost detached. Would that have been possible after such a terrible act of violence?
So questions, in my mind, remain as to Kelly’s real motive. Are we to take his wife/mother/career woman at face value? Where are our sympathies supposed to lie?
Again the jury is out. Each audience member must make up their own mind and personal judgement as to how and where they stand with what we have heard and seen.
As a piece of theatre, though, it’s magic. And Mulligan is mesmerising, always keeping the moment and the text alive – no small feat over 90 minutes which occasionally feels over-extended despite the elegance and chic of Lyndsey Turner’s production with Es Devlin’s fascinating, faded out domestic living room and kitchen.
One helluva writer, that Kelly and his `muse’, Carey Mulligan. Will it transfer? It would be a sell-out, if arduous to maintain, I imagine for Mulligan. Time will tell…
Girls & Boys
A new play by Dennis Kelly
Director: Lyndsey Turner
Designer: Es Devlin
Costume Designer: Jack Galloway
Video Designer: Luke Halls
Lighting Designer: Oliver Fenwick
Sound Designer: David McSeveney
Assistant Director: Milli Bhatia
Associate Video Designers: Charli Davis, Zakk Hein
Associate Set Designers: Jack Headford, Jed Skrzypczak, Angle Vasilelou, Machiko Weston
Video Programmer: Sam Lisher
Movement: Joseph Alford
Dialect Coach: Neil Swain
Casting Director: Amy Ball
World premiere of Girls & Boys at Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London, Feb 8, 2018
Review published on this site, Feb 22, 2018