Girls & Boys by Dennis Kelly
State Theatre Company South Australia
The Odeon Theatre, Kaurna Land (57a Queen St, Norwood)
Monday 28th February, 2022 6.30pm (approximately 110 minutes)

According to director Mitchell Butel, Dennis Kelly’s Girls & Boys is ‘a play that may work best when the audience has no prior knowledge of where it is heading’. Indeed, the audience follows a narrative that at first feels like an amicable conversation with a likeable stranger, then finds itself in surprising intimacy, resulting in ‘deep self and social reflection’, as encouraged by Butel.

Justine Clarke embodies this nameless woman with an easeful presence, utilising Ailsa Paterson’s minimal but bold set, complemented with modest sound and lighting features by Andrew Howard and Nigel Levings, respectively. For the duration, she has the audience in her hands with laughter, tears and contemplative silence as she divulges her relationships as a woman and mother. Although there are multi-faceted meanings to the mimed moments, these actions felt cumbersome at times.

Kelly’s instinctive and entertaining script creates an authentic pace that lulls the audience into living and breathing her reality, gently and then all of a sudden. Clarke’s skilful characterisation lends itself to immersive storytelling with a depth of heart and connection, consistently holding direct eye contact with audience members and concluding the play with an inhale before blackout, leaving us to collectively exhale for her.

As the title suggests, Girls & Boys explores cutting themes regarding gender roles within our patriarchal system, making daring remarks on privilege, entitlement, control and jealousy. It questions conflict across relational dynamics and whether society has been created for men, amidst the looming presence of a literal backdrop of toys and the normalcy of middle-class suburban comfort. There is no commentary on sexual, cultural, ability or economic diversity which if it were to be included, could strengthen this conversation.

While crushingly cold, hard facts are tossed at the audience, there are also nods to the kindness and generosity retained in humanity, especially resonant with current global events. Yet, there remains an elusive quality to these disconcerting truths of human capacity for both destruction and emotional resilience, leaving an unsettled air over the audience with the unfinished sentence, ‘people are just so…’

It’s a curious, if not bold move for this production to be written and directed by men when it speaks from a profoundly female-oriented experience, and yet it is clearly implemented with care, sensitivity and safety. I’m really glad I saw this; with skill and respect, it invites us to deepen our emotional intelligence, and to critique the daily norms of our relationships. May this season of Girls & Boys offer a crucial voice and light to everyone who bears witness to this narrative reflecting a rife reality.

– Abi Catchlove

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