Tracy is a 14-year-old with an eclectic bunch of friends, a passion for Craig David and a crush on a blue-eyed sixth-former, Conor Jones. She’s the type you might see on top floor of the bus dishing out insults, or sitting at the back of the classroom with a comeback or quip for any question her teacher asks. “I ain’t smart enough to be someone,” she tells us, as she takes us on a journey through the peaks and perils of being young, falling in love and falling out with friends: “I’m just smart enough to know I’m no one.” If she’s anything at all, though, she’s funny and fascinating, with Chewing Gum Dreams offering audiences a rollercoaster ride of a story, with plenty of laughs and even more heart.
Writer and performer, Michaela Coel draws on her own school experiences to weave this tale of tragedy mixed with hope and its honesty shows: Chewing Gum Dreams is often scarily close to the bone, incredibly well drawn and vivid, and really packs a punch by the end. Coel’s energetic and detailed performance not only offers a lesson in great character acting, but gives us a glimpse into an all-too familiar world where adults don’t listen, and Tracy is powerless to help herself or her friends. Indeed, Coel’s bang-on-the-mark impersonation of an unimpressed school teacher, and later a judgemental pharmacist, hit home with everyone in the theatre; Chewing Gum Dreams has something which speaks to everyone’s experience, and has you laughing (and at the same time embarrassed) at how much you share with Tracy – regardless of the age gap.
Sugar-coated with searing wit and brilliant comic timing at first, the more we get to know Tracy the more we see how tragically early in her life she experiences bitter disappointment and heartbreak. And this is the beauty of Coel’s writing: it moves so fast that you can barely catch your breath before you’re laughing again. Coel has struck the perfect balance between light and dark. Tracy’s moments of empathy are suddenly contrasted by her brazen behaviour, creating a brilliant ambiguity which reminds us that people are never wholly good nor bad: an ambiguity which certainly keeps the audience on their toes, on Tracy’s side, and wanting to know more.
And while it is noteworthy that Coel does a magnificent job of holding the stage on her own throughout with such an engaging performance – her only set piece a chair which sits centre stage throughout – she is backed by a strong creative team. Jamie Spirito’s lighting design is brilliantly subtle yet detailed, really bringing to life the world of the play and immense clarity to the story as we journey with Tracy. Equally, Chewing Gum Dreams, as a whole, is beautifully brought together by director, Nadia Fall, who never lets it err on the side of caricature or stereotype, so that the play feels shaded, nuanced and intensely personal.
This is a simple show with huge imagination and an incredibly strong heart beating through it, with Coel proving that if you can boast a strong script, truthful characters like Tracy, and charismatic performances, then you don’t need huge sets, flashy costumes or big budgets to make theatre which can really capture and astound audiences.
Chewing Gum Dreams is playing at the National Theatre Shed until 5 April. For more information and tickets, see the NT Shed website.