Layla is fifteen years old. She’s the cleverest girl in her year, writes poetry, and has a supportive mum. The trouble is, her best friend Monica’s got with a proper rude boy who launches a full-on campaign of abuse against Layla. As the bright, happy girl monologues her ordeal around short scenes, the focus splits – though her treatment at the hands of her peers is a horrific primary storyline, other concerns arise. Issues such as body image, friendship, gender pay gap, education, dating and alternative families all find their way into Sabrina Mahfouz’s script. Mahfouz makes Layla a rounded, complex character with potential for numerous stories rather than becoming a single-issue driven vehicle; an excellent cast and supporting characters give the play depth and an appeal to its teenage target audience.
Shanice Sewell plays Layla with vivacity and charm. She is the daughter every mum wants – a good kid with ambition and warmth. Emma White’s Monica is a great foil who, although a girly contrast to Layla’s sporty boyishness, doesn’t alienate audience members who focus more on fitness, fashion and boys than school. Alex Stedman plays several male roles in a skilled display of multi-rolling. There is some lovely chemistry developing between the three actors that is sure to grow as the run goes on.
Though Monica’s choices come with clear moralising, it isn’t too heavy handed. She’s more misguided than a bad girl, demonstrating how easy it is to be lead astray. Her boyfriend Joe is a nasty piece of work, but contrasted by Layla’s doting father and quiet boy Reece, who’s long fancied her. Mahfouz commendably paints almost all of the characters as flawed, but positive – she and Theatre Centre totally get that preaching to kids doesn’t work.
The hour-long running time is spot on for the format. More scenes and fewer speeches would make the piece more dynamic were it longer but as is, it works. Designer Ele Slade’s monochrome set hints at the young people’s London without diminishing their colourful characterisation.
Layla’s Room, though clearly pitched to a teen audience, appeals more widely through its easygoing characterisation and approaching the ideas without condescension. The story is warm and caring, setting realistic examples without over-egging the message.
Layla’s Room tours through 23 November.
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