Despite an entire Edinburgh run and considerable publicity around Anna Jordan, its Bruntwood Prize-winning playwright/director, Freak still managed to be an entirely different play to the one I had been expecting. The blurb of the play tells us that “Georgie is 30 with dirty secrets. She drinks in her bedroom and hides from the sun. Leah is 15. She practises her cum face and Veets. A lot.” And yes, these things are all true and they do happen, but somehow it feels as if the characters of Freak and the play’s core have been unjustly boiled down. In reality, Freak is both touchingly funny and terribly sincere, presenting a well-drawn and accessible look into female sexuality.
Instead of simply being a fanatic teen obsessed with obliterating every pubic hair on her body, April Hughes is an adorable ball of energy as Leah, balancing the elements of childhood and adulthood in her performance that make clear how tricky a time of life Leah’s is. Excellently juxtaposed is the droll, cynical Georgie (Lia Burge), whose originally strong decision to quit her job spirals her into a horrific situation of the murkiest kind. These characters are well-drawn, portrayed realistically enough to be believable but, with their circumstances veering off to exceptional, unorthodox enough to pack a punch. This appears to be rooted in Jordan’s honest, confident writing, but we mustn’t ignore the quality of Hughes and Burge’s performances, which keep the production buoyant and engaging throughout.
Jordan also refuses to be lazy as a director. While it would be incredibly easy to be precious with the text and over-simplify the production, she makes use of scene intermissions to exemplify the themes of the play. Burge and Hughes dance in their underwear, strip, perform, Rachel Bottomley’s lighting suddenly bright and harsh – all acting as loud reminders of the pressure women are under to be hyper-sexualised today. It’s both bold and hugely contemporary. Sure, sometimes the use of song lyrics can feel a little cliché and cringe-worthy, but perhaps that goes hand in hand with the teeny life Leah leads.
Freak is at its weakest when Georgie and Leah come together in one room and have a conversation – as they must, seeing as the characters are inevitably linked. The writing takes a while to shake off the form its inhabited for the rest of the play, and in all honesty the scene feels a little like a necessary but laborious tying up of loose ends. Luckily, by the time we’re halfway through this final scene we’re in familiar territory: frank, unabashed honesty about all the parts of a woman’s sexuality, aware of its importance but accessible in its delivery. It’s something that Jordan and the two performers convey very, very well.
Freak is playing Theatre503 until 27 September. For more information and tickets, see Theatre503’s website.