Essex Girls is an extremely rewarding production, offering a jarring mix of both tragedy and comedy, and succeeding handsomely at both. When Samuel Beckett once said that nothing is funnier than unhappiness, he could well have been talking about this latest Dramasoc production. Director Joe Lichtenstein, producer Hannah Tahry, and the entire cast do an extremely capable job of bringing Rebecca Prichard’s seminal all-female play to life.
The play hinges around two distinct set pieces. In the first, a troubled single mother, Karen (Clare Duffy), is visited by her gaudy sister (Rosie Litterick), who tries her best to lift her heavy spirits. In the second, three schoolgirls have an illicit conversation in the girl’s toilet about sex, boys and their marked distaste for both their teachers and education. If this sounds like obvious social commentary, you’d be right, but it’s remarkably good and at no point does it feel heavy handed.
The first section was sublime, and in many ways the most compelling of the two. Clare Duffy’s miserable kitchen sink performance as a woeful single mother interacts beautifully with the pantomime Essex stereotype portrayed by Rosie Litterick. Litterick’s constant stream of inane, self-obsessed drivel is ceaselessly entertaining, and her never-ending bag of one liners means the audience have barely finished laughing before the next wave hits. The contrast between the comedy of her performance, and maternal misery of Duffy’s character just highlights what a horrible state of affairs the character are immersed in.
The intimate staging and the audience seated just inches away from the cast, renders the bleak hopelessness of Karen’s situation as a woman in dire need perfectly, and will illicit empathy from even the coldest of audiences. But perhaps the standout performance came not from any of the female leads, but from the sole male, Sam Hill. His brief few lines of brutal, heavily accented shouting – delivered invisibly off stage – in conjunction with Duffy’s almost palatable terror, brought the segment to a powerful close and were a production highlight.
The second segment was equally as funny and disturbing as the first scene, with strong and believable performances by Elizabeth Cooke, Sophie Mann, Rose Basista. Again, Rebecca Prichard’s script shone, with the grotesque, mostly sexual, banter entertaining consistently. However, the audience cannot help but think about the horror these girls are setting themselves up for later in life, and though barely a minute goes by without another edgy laugh, you cannot help but be slightly affected by thoughts of the misery that their teenage nihilism will end up bringing upon them later. The whole thing is so contorted and vile that it ends up being more tragic than comic and it will really bring out the sensible parent in you merely by watching it. Detailed set design compliments the scenes perfectly; the crude graffiti scrawled on the toilets captures the adolescent mind-set as well as any of the dialogue. Their costumes: slightly ridiculous makeup, shortened ties and unbuttoned top buttons, are all exactly on point as well.
The creative staging, however, is one aspect of the play that I remain unsure about. The audience was divided into two halves, and each was treated to a different half of the play performed simultaneously in a different part of the Drama Barn, and then they were swapped at the interval to see the other. At times the quieter apartment scenes where drowned out by the banter in the girls toilets, and at one point one of the girls toilet conversations was almost completely drowned out by shouting from the other scene – to the point of the dialogue being almost completely inaudible for the audience. Rather than being a creatively brilliant juxtaposition, as may have been intended, it ends up merely being a bit messy and perhaps unnecessary. Though considering the quality of the rest of production, I almost feel bad saying it.
Essex Girls made laugh, but it also made me think, and for me, that’s a pretty decent Friday night. I left the Drama Barn not only with a few new innuendos and a couple more stereotypes about places in the south of England, but also a rather sobering sympathy for the self-perpetuating cycle of misery these characters are involved in. I may not be happy to live in world where Essex Girls is social realism, but I’m happy to be at a university where people are making plays like this.