Writer: Lucy Danser
Director: Helena Jackson
From the day they meet on their mutual first day at a new school, Alex and Maryam are inseparable. Together with Maryam’s brother Madani, the trio share tight bonds that they feel will last a lifetime.
And for much of Lucy Danser’s play, the delight is in the charting of thee children’s progression through their teenage years and how power relationships shift subtly in that time. Zarima McDermott’s Maryam, always the bookworm, becomes a self-assured young woman with a strong sense of moral justice; her brother Mad (Isambard Rawbone), facing the pressure of being the “mon of the house” from a young age, finds an outlet (and a possible career path) at the local boxing gym.
Initially, Aofie Smyth’s Alex seems like the most passive of the trio, despite her meeting with Maryam coming as a result of standing up to a school bully. But as Mar begins to prepare for a life at university, Alex comes into her own, as does Smyth, particularly when she realises she is in love with Madani.
Danser’s skill at placing dialogue in teenage mouths works in the play’s favour from the off, even as the exaggerated attempts to portray their characters as ten-year-olds sometimes frustrates the cast. Once that artifice fades away, though, the trio of performers soon settle into their portrayal of teenagers.
And then Danser takes things in a very different direction, As Alex and Madani’s relationship takes a sexual turn which should be happy for them, but leaves Alex traumatised. Smyth shines as the girl who believes that she should feel herself a woman now, but instead is struggling to comprehend anything.
The subsequent fallout, and the fractures between the trio, are delicately explored. Danser audaciously dares to suggest that Maryam’s moral absolutism, her absolute trust in what is right and wrong, is something that those directly involved struggle to share.
The playwright also refuses to paint Madani as wholly culpable. A sub theme running throughout is the characters’ incomplete relationship with their fathers. Mad and Mar escaped with their mother from what is implied to have been an abusive relationship, and while Mad finds a father figure and mentor in Phil, the boxing gym coach, they do not talk about the things that matter. This is mirrored in Alex’s relationship with her own father, who struggles to have “The Talk” with the daughter he still sees as his little girl.
Indeed, the twin combinations of teenage ignorance around sex, and the perpetual pressure to become sexual adults, feel like they are the true villains of Danser’s piece. And while one almost wishes the pivot in her storytelling came earlier in order to examine the consequences of Alex’s trauma, If This Is Normal does at least provide a very adult look at teenage sexuality.
Continues until 28 February 2020