Blown Youth, on this week at the Wimbledon New Theatre’s studio space, is a sprawling, expansive work with resonances of Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir and above all, Shakespeare. Its fascinating concept and excellent cast provide moments of theatrical brilliance, but despite this, Blown Youth’s success is compromised by a lack of cohesion and finesse.
The plot revolves around a commune, or “intentional community” of women who hope to forge a new way of living. Among them are creatives such as Celia (Lydia Bakelmun) and Audre (Laila Bouromane) and those who have found more traditional roles as doctors or professionals (Lola May as Margaret or Comfort Fabian as Anne, for instance).
It is a diverse group, intentionally so, and perfect ground for exploration of femininity in all its guises- female relationships (both sexual and platonic), the role of women in domestic and public roles, and how womanhood interacts with other cultural, racial and sexual identities. The separate female space is an interesting concept, and begs a question that hangs over the play: are these women forging a new way of being, or just replicating old, male-dominated, social structures?
The play is part exploration of the construction of difference in all its forms, and part consideration of the nature of performance and acting itself. The refrain “there are just no good parts for women” brings these concerns together. It is repeated often and, in a testament to the play’s ability to undercut and confound the worldview it has already built up, takes on a multitude of meanings.
Therefore the work is on fertile thematic ground, but in practice the whole piece feels rather disjointed, as if the action is trying to split itself in too many directions and can’t quite follow through with any of them. A cancer storyline, although expertly done by Sophie Kilburn as Ray, didn’t really add anything substantive. Similarly, the work’s symbolic register is well developed, but mid-way through the production the overblown metaphors and forced lyricism begin to jar.
Part of the reason for this could be that this is a show of individuals, rather than an ensemble; the characters seem to drift past one another, never properly connecting. Nevertheless, all of the performances are strong, especially Shia (Lukwesa Mwamba), the new housemate who disrupts the status quo, and Sophia Lockhart as Jo, a young mother and the catalyst for one of the play’s central conflicts.
Bakelmun, too, offers an accomplished performance in the play’s most effective scene. As Celia rehearses for a role as Hamlet, she incorporates Shakespeare’s text into the expression of her own conflict about the origins of her theatrical aspirations and the nature of her neurotic anguish. This masterful scene, as author Dipika Guha puts it in her preface, probes how we elevate Hamlet’s flaws, but judge these same traits in a woman. But it goes yet further- deconstructing the primacy of gender in the interpretation of Shakespeare and wondering how queer and black voices can find expression without the backing of history and tradition.
Overall, Blown Youth is difficult to critique in any consistent way. It is sometimes simplistically direct, tedious even, and other times ingeniously subtle and insidiously affecting. It raises important questions about gender and race, but its real strength is how it creates an evocative atmosphere of desperation and longing that these women feel that will last long after the curtain falls.
Blown Youth is playing at the New Wimbledon Studio until 10th September. For more information and tickets, see the AGT Tickets website..