Writer: Julia Grogan
Director: Blanche McIntyre
Shame, blame and guilt are the holy trinity, all things that young women are made to feel about themselves and their actions as soon as they hit puberty which can last long into adulthood. Julia Grogan’s new 75-minute drama Playfight for the Finbrough Theatre, performed as a rehearsed reading and streamed via YouTube, explores female friendship at a crucial age as three teenage girls contend with their emotions.
Zainab, Lucy and Keira are best friends who meet every day at their favourite oak tree just outside the school grounds. At 15, Keira has lied about her age to have sex with an older boy which she has filmed and circulated to earn some kind of kudos; Zainab is starting to have feelings for other girls despite her mother’s homophobia while Lucy’s Christian beliefs clash with their endless talk of orgasms, porn and love. As the years pass, can their friendship endure as long as the oak tree?
Grogan’s play captures well the confusion of fluctuating hormones, peer pressure and a teenage girl’s desperate anticipation of being older she is. Playfight has quite a distinct voice, an innocent knowledge where the characters are aware of and openly discuss the responses of their bodies: are able to use them but are still too young to really understand the emotional implications of their actions which adds an interesting level of naivety to the discussions.
Structurally, Grogan uses about 20 fairly short scenes that take Zainab, Lucy and Keira from 15-24 years old while exploring the changing nature of their relationship as other priorities begin to dominate their experiences including GCSE and A-level results as well as long-term partners and work, but sex, desire and, sometimes, love remain their constant conversational reference point.
While the Zoom reading is now an overly familiar format, Director Blanche McIntyre rarely uses the side-by-side boxes and instead employs full screen images of her actors who perform from their own homes against a consistent white background. The approach gives the play an added emotional depth and drive as the various duologues and ensemble scenes are instead presented as cuts between each actor, sometimes focusing on the reaction shot rather than the speaker for added energy.
Characterisation is a little less satisfying however and while Grogan creates intimacy and connection between these young women, their wider existence away from the pivotal tree doesn’t always convince. Helen Monks as Keira has the hardest role, a girl keen to engage in sexual activity with as many people as possible who falls into a form of online prostitution in order to make an escape fund. Monks gives Keira that determined confidence of youth but while a tricky relationship with her father is hinted at, her motivation and credibility as a rounded character is too slight.
There is a sweet connection between Hannah Millaward’s Lucy and Robyn Cara’s Zainab which develops in intensity as Playfight unfolds – no easy feat via Zoom – and much of their interaction feels believably loaded with emotion, yet Lucy’s crucial interaction with an unseen boyfriend goes from Christian innocence to something far more explicit a little too quickly. Cara’s Zainab is the most sympathetic although her own backstory needs greater expansion to fully consider those feelings of shame, blame and guilt that affect the growth of these women and the fateful silences that change their lives.
Runs here until 8 April 2021