The topic of gender is never far from our minds. It informs our every interaction with other people, and goes right to the core of our self-perception.
Society has made huge strides in recent years in our collective understanding of those who fall outside the standard gender binary. However, even though this is its central theme, Boy Stroke Girl feels like it never quite gets to the heart of the matter and ends up repeating trite truisms rather than uncovering anything deeper.
The plot follows Peter (Gianbruno Spena) and Blue’s (Ilaria Ciardelli) encounter in Café Nero and their blossoming romance, born out of a shared love of Dr Who and Sherlock Holmes. One thing though: Peter isn’t sure if Blue is male or female.
The rest of the play is very much a ‘journey’, for the two main characters and their circle of family and friends (all played by Thomasin Lockwood and Duncan Mason). In many points, it feels contrived – there are a series of teachable moments about gender expression and fluidity, what trans means, and the unrealistic pressures that the media places on women and their bodies. All of this is very well. The aphorisms that pepper the production are undoubtedly true (“it’s the person inside that counts”), but it all came across as very worthy and right-on, and treaded ground that has already been well covered.
The central crux of the narrative also felt a little odd. Throughout the play, Peter is trying to discover Blue’s gender identity; and when the relationship turns physical towards the play’s close, this is positioned as a big reveal. It seems that in this way the work equates gender and biological sex – surely the point is that these don’t match up; that Blue is free to express in gender as separate from their physical sex; that there is nothing to “discover”? Perhaps I am getting the wrong end of this stick, but this confusion was perhaps the greatest gap in the production – we never really understand what is going on in Blue’s head.
A few other plot devices grated. There were predictable diatribes on the pitfalls of social media, the definition of art, and the superficial nature of online dating; as well as a few digressions on such topics as the impossibility of free will and the relationship third wave feminism has with cultural relativism. This ultimately didn’t add much, other than flexing the show’s intellectual credentials.
There were, thankfully, a few brighter moments in the production. The reaction of the peripheral characters to Peter and Blue’s relationship was more revealing. It mirrored well the wider world’s reaction to questions of non-traditional gender identification. And the treatment of physicality in a non-binary relationship was well conceived.
I ultimately felt that the production was let down by the hackneyed formulation of many of its key thoughts, and its ambivalent treatment of its animating theme.
Boy Stroke Girl is playing at the Etcetera Theatre until 12th March. For more information and tickets, see etceteratheatre.com.
Photo by Ian Dixon Potter