Girls & Boys, Royal Court

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by Laura Kressly

A woman stands on a pastel blue stage and starts at the beginning. She tells us a love story – how she met a man in an airport, fell in love and built a life with him. Great jobs, a family, a house, the full works. It’s perfect. Until it’s not.

Dennis Kelly’s monologue is structurally simple, but linguistically rich. There are fistfuls of universal truths about cishet relationships, job hunting and travel yet they combine with this unnamed woman’s story to create a life that is wholly believable. The textual precision has some deliciously funny moments, but turns on a dime. It totally devastates even though there are plenty of hints that this point in the story is coming.

Kelly helps hold audience interest by including playacted memories of her and her children in between long sections of direct address. These add texture and detail to the woman’s life, but who is she talking to? It feels more like a TED talk than the intimacy of counselling session or coffee with a girl friend.

Carey Mulligan delivers this monologue with a stunning, ballsy frankness. She takes no prisoners, but is rarely aggressive in her tone. She almost throws away Kelly lines about gendered violence, a canny choice by director Lyndsey Turner that highlights the factual nature of the statements. They aren’t opinions – men are more more likely to commit physically violent acts than women, both on a global scale and within domestic units.

It’s here that the production becomes feminist. Though it doesn’t feel aesthetically radical, it is perhaps more palatable to the average man than other forms of feminist performance – not that any feminist work is more or less worthy than others, or doesn’t have a place in theatre’s ecology – but Girls & Boys won’t alienate the less open-minded men. This makes it a necessary contribution to mainstream subsidised theatre, and unquestionably deserving of a place in contemporary feminist theatre’s canon.

Es Devlin’s set, in it’s soothing wash pale blue, is calming – but it’s the shade that hues everything for baby boys, from toys to onsies to nursery decor. It covers everything on the stage, from each surface of the placeless box where Mulligan delivers her monologue to every item in her gorgeous, open plan home. Boys still rule the world, and their power infiltrates every nook and cranny of the character’s world – except her person.

Not only is this a vital piece of theatre, Kelly’s script is an extraordinary piece of writing, and Mulligan totally claims it as her own. Its presentation of the impact and unexpectedness of domestic violence is not be argued with, but to be shared from stages across the world.

Girls & Boys runs through 17 March.

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