Billy’s back home after a year in prison and, whilst she’s bright-eyed and beaming, her conversation a mishmash of motivational ‘positive thinking’ slogans, her mother Ingrid is not exactly overjoyed. In their scrubby, junk-strewn back garden (an immaculately detailed set from Joanna Scotcher) the pair circle each other warily like distrustful predators, cheery platitudes soon making way for frosty put-downs.
Billy the Girl, with our eponymous heroine played with an infectious, nervy energy by fiercely likeable Danusia Samal, is a tale that is by turns sobering and triumphant. Little sister Amber (Naomi Ackie) wants to buy her returning sibling a banner and a ‘Welcome Home!’ cake, whilst Ingrid (the fascinating Christina Entwisle) wants her to stay in the mildewed caravan with all the other tat kept safely out of the house. I’m certain it’s no coincidence that the caravan bears the name ‘Marauder’, because Billy is nothing less than a wholly destructive force in her mother’s eyes, turning up only to threaten Ingrid’s new-found happiness courtesy of Slimfast shakes and a Swayze-lookalike fiance. No-one is safe and nothing is sacred when mother and daughter lock horns, whilst naive teenager Amber tries, usually unsuccessfully, to keep the peace.
The phrase ‘you’ll have to laugh or else you’ll cry…’ comes to mind frequently, for it’s through comedy that the darkest details of these women’s lives are conveyed. Billy and her mother squabble over the minor (who took baby Amber to the park?) and the major (whose fault was the disastrous accident?) with equal venom, scrambling for any ammunition they can lay their hands on in a bloody battle of wills that can be both hilarious and horrifying. Yet, it’s a play as much about as forgiveness as it is about turmoil, picking up on such diverse themes as family, memory, identity, abuse, reformation and social care along the way. Playwright Katie Hims handles her characters with such affectionate tenderness that we can’t help but feel endearingly towards them even as they alienate each other. Blunt, brassy and pointedly unpoetic, the script refuses to flinch from touchy subjects in a way that suggests – much like Billy, trying to start afresh – Kate Hims knows full well that cleansing usually starts with making a lot of mess.
Even with its troubled protagonists and their traumatised lives, the show is effectively feel-good fare, an undoubtedly refreshing take on tried-and-tested narratives of familial estrangement and eventual reconciliation. Sweet-natured without being cloying, Billy the Girl leaving us in no doubt that the three women, despite their range of vices, really are trying their best in a less-than-perfect world. There’s never any sense that the plot threads of bereavement or prison life are simply dramatic devices being plumbed for emotional pay-offs. Just as in real life, what, in another kind of play, might be presented as revelatory bombshells don’t so much as explode as roll about clumsily underfoot, tripping everyone up as they try and steady themselves in an uncertain situation – a crossroads, it seems, between repeating the mistakes of the past and seeking an unknown but optimistic future.
Maybe it’s something about the highly-realistic set, the brief episodic scenes or the resonant one liners that tend to end them, that suggest Billy the Girl could work just as well, if not better, on film as it does on stage. The only real miscalculation here is that there’s nothing crucially theatrical about the play and so, sometimes, it seems that its very setting, caught between caravan and home, works less as a symbol for Billy’s potential stagnation and instead has a directly sedative effect on the action, especially when the back-and-forth histrionics get tiresome. Yet it’s impossible to resist the beautifully rendered snapshots of gutsy, damaged, complex and above all real women that each performer offers in this all-too-brief production, and the gently redemptive finale feels genuinely deserved rather than sentimental. A touchingly hopeful portrait of life after the worst has has happened, Billy the Girl confirms Clean Break’s reputation for bringing important and too often untold stories to the fore.
Billy the Girl is playing at the Soho Theatre until 24 November. For more information and tickets, please see the Soho Theatre website.