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Bitches – Finborough Theatre, London

Writer: Bola Agbaje
Director: Valentina Ceschi
Reviewer: Alex Ramon

Founded in 1956, as the first youth theatre in the world, and having boasted the likes of Helen Mirren, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Daniel Day-Lewis among its members, the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain remains a vital and vibrant force: a great place for aspiring actors and practitioners to get their start. Naturally, the NYT’s 60th anniversary is not going uncelebrated, and among the events taking place this year is the presentation of three new plays at the Finborough. James Fritz’s The Fall opened last week, while Stephanie Street’s adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist premieres in a few days’ time. In between, Bola Agbaje’s Bitches can be seen, in a production directed by NYT REP 2013 Assistant Director Valentina Ceschi.

The Olivier-winning Agbaje first came to attention in 2007, emerging from the Royal Court Writers Group with Gone Too Far!, a (mostly) comic portrait of the culture clash between a Peckham teen and his Nigeria-raised older brother, which was also adapted for film by Destiny Ekharaga in 2013.

Bitches very much continues Agbaje’s abiding interest in exploring Black experience in the diaspora, but it does so with a firm focus on the ways in which social media has contributed to (and commodified) debates around race in our current cultural moment. The play’s protagonists are Funke and Cleo, teenage vloggers whose “Sons of Bitches” YouTube channel is a success. When we meet the pair, they’re the quintessence of contemporary teenage girlhood: twerking, posing and selfie-snapping as hip hop blares. Yet, as the day progresses, and the duo debates the content of their latest vlog, a more complex picture emerges of two young women caught up in a volatile time of snap judgement and unlicensed opinion, when an unwise online post can have considerable repercussions.

With references to Lemonade’s visuals and Drake’s lyrics, Brexit, Piers Morgan and Rachel Dolezal, and, most pointedly, the Black Lives Matter movement, Bitches is bracingly topical, and at times you may feel that Agbaje has crow-barred a few too many hot-topic contemporary allusions into the piece. What saves the writing from feeling too calculated, though, is Agbaje’s sure feel for the interactions of teenage girls, a dynamic which the terrific performances of Tara Tijani, as Funke, and Katherine Humphrey, as Cleo, bring to nuanced, vivid life, capturing every shift of complicity and hostility in the pair’s dynamic, as they present two characters who define themselves through (or against) the various cultural figures and products they consume.

The play’s emphasis on role-play and performance (early on, Funke “plays” her authoritarian mother while Cleo “plays” Funke in a vlog presentation) initially suggests that Agbaje is attempting an updating of Jean Genet’s The Maids here; indeed, Emma Bailey’s excellent set – a bedroom as enclosure/sanctuary, with the audience placed on three sides of the action – definitely seems to have taken some inspiration from Soutra Gilmour’s design for Jamie Lloyd’s stunning production of Genet’s classic at Trafalgar Studios earlier this year. In addition, the play’s title suggests a cheeky nod to that soon-to- be-remade urtext of female friendship, Beaches.

However, Bitches develops its own identity as it progresses, and engages the audience on its own terms. Friendships between white and black characters are explored with disgraceful infrequency on our stages and screens these days, and Agbaje’s astute engagement with the divisive rhetoric that is undermining such relationships makes this play particularly potent. In a great opening touch, Will Alder’s superb sound design bombards us with a cacophony of media sound-bites, from Donald Trump to Alesha Dixon: a brilliant, economical evocation of the incessant, confusing discourses that girls like Cleo and Funke daily negotiate.

Agbaje’s approach is intelligent and fair-minded – neither Cleo nor Funke emerge with clean hands – and while the play clearly critiques teenagers’ immersion in the online world, it avoids easy moralising: Cleo and Funke’s vlogging, it’s suggested, offered a fine opportunity for self-expression, but gradually got corrupted by the insatiable urge for more hits, viewers, followers and ‘likes.’ (“Soon there’ll be no newspapers, just people like us,” Cleo notes, approvingly.) Funny, relatable, astute and humane, Bitches both stimulates and entertains. Here’s hoping that Agbaje’s play, and Ceschi’s vibrant production, get the further life that they deserve.

Runs until 20 August 2016| Image Mark Cocksedge

Writer: Bola Agbaje Director: Valentina Ceschi Reviewer: Alex Ramon Founded in 1956, as the first youth theatre in the world, and having boasted the likes of Helen Mirren, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Daniel Day-Lewis among its members, the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain remains a vital and vibrant force: a great place for aspiring actors and practitioners to get their start. Naturally, the NYT’s 60th anniversary is not going uncelebrated, and among the events taking place this year is the presentation of three new plays at the Finborough. James Fritz’s The Fall opened last week, while Stephanie Street’s adaptation of…

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One comment

  1. Tara Tijani was just amazing in this show. Both Funke and Chloe brought such vibrant energy onto the stage, and we almost didn’t want it to finish. Well done to both of them