Review by Alison Stoddart
If ever an audience was held mesmerised it surely had to be at the opening night performance of Girls & Boys. For 120 minutes Justine (I Like to Sing) Clarke cast her magic over the Everest Theatre at Sydney’s Seymour Centre in this one woman show. Girls & Boys is written by British playwright Dennis Kelly who will be most known to Australian audiences as the writer of the recently released Matilda the Musical movie. Performed in the second largest theatre at the Seymour Centre, the room held a surprising mix of both male and female theatre goers. The almost balancing of gender and its significance only becoming apparent upon the conclusion of the play.
The story of Girls & Boys is a romantic comedy, but also a tragedy. It’s about a good man, who married an even better woman and together they had a great family. Two children and a career that is nurtured and encouraged by the husband implies a perfect life. But it is in what the woman doesn’t tell us, that allows small glimmers of disquiet to creep in, helped along with the 1800 Respect cards on the tables at the entrances to the theatre.
The woman, who in unnamed, does acknowledge that the perspective of the story is all hers. With her comment “I am, of course, just giving you one side”, the audience gains insight into how complex and nuanced a story like this is.
Boys & Girls is a play that encompasses some well executed delivery. From monologue to mime and the segueing of scenes with the use of the 4th wall, Justine Clarke spins a narrative arc that turns on its head and delivers a punch-to-the-guts shock ending.
A standout and highly amusing scene involves the mother playing with her children. She indulges them in their choice of playacting and its hilarious to realise she is raising a closet New York real estate speculator in her daughter and a bomb throwing terrorist in her son. Only an actor as skilled as Clarke can so effectively portray this physical theatre.
Being ignorant of the plays’ denouement and as the marriage falters, I found myself falling into all-too-common pitfalls current in society. Of judging the woman and directing a ray of sympathy towards the husband, offering up uninformed excuses for him in my thought processes. Why is it still happening that blame and responsibility is directed towards the female and excuses and justification is offered up to the man. The remorse and feelings of guilt I was left with at the play’s conclusion sat uncomfortably with me but if a feature of the arts is to shine a light on society’s imperfections and an individual’s unconscious biases then the brilliant writing of this play achieves that abundantly. Its ability to be thought provoking and to encourage internal deliberation is extreme but necessary.
A small anomaly that did raise its head was the interruption to the narrative arc that was heading down the path of exploring relationships, the love involved and the success maintaining them, which looked, by the halfway mark, to be very promising in its profundity and insightfulness. Unfortunately, this was abruptly halted. With a left hook inspired change of direction the play veers into domestic violence territory. With hardly any foreshadowing (in fact just one sentence), the narrative glibly opens up the topic without any nuance or acknowledgement of the complexity at play. In that regard the play is reduced and feels slightly cheapened.
The entire narrative, including the use of the unreliable narrator, the reversing of the unsupportive male/female binary, the sheer amount of dialogue delivered in a myriad of ways is presented in a stellar performance by Clarke.
Justine Clarke earned herself a standing ovation on the first night of the show’s Sydney season. If she continues to entrance the audience with her mesmerising display of artistic ability and pure pleasure to watch over the next 10 days, then it’s quite possible she can look forward to many more.