We’re strong advocates for fringe, here at A Younger Theatre. We – I, love seeing shows in small venues with a small cast and budget. The excitement of being unawares is far more than walking into a humongous West End venue, loaded with pre-conceived ideas. The Finborough is a well known London fringe venue and has played host to well-known actors, as well as building a foundation for shows that then move on. There’s something special about witnessing raw theatre and the shared anxiety between stage and crowd (both might be somewhat optimistic terms).
The idea is a fine one. Three girls living in Tokyo have graduated from high school and, in a bid to make some quick cash and escape their restrictive, conformist lives, travel to Kabukicho, a district that thrives on fantasy and become channels through which mature, wealthy men can experience theirs.
Written by Francis Turnly, a member of the Royal Court’s Studio and resident playwright at the Tricycle Theatre and produced by Papergang Theatre, Harajuku Girls has originality leaping from it in waves and on paper it seems like it could be really special. I find this culture extremely fascinating and especially the apparent need for so many of the Japanese – perhaps more widely those living in the cities – to escape the conventional routine of their everyday lives. This is shown to be severely frowned upon as Mari’s (Haruka Abe) father discovers the depths of his daughter’s secret life. But this is not unlike many society’s views on what is not considered ‘normal’. You either ignore it or run at it with venomous ferocity. In Harajuku Girls this secret world is more of a sub-universe within Japanese culture. As demonstrated at the beginning of the piece, schoolgirls sell their old uniforms much like we’d expect ‘weirdos’ to sell their dirty knickers on eBay and incidentally, Mari’s volatile friend, Keiko (Elizabeth Tan) goes one small step further. I won’t spoil the surprise but it’s pretty startling. The need to make money and to be a ‘uniform’ is prominent here as is the restriction of creativity. Mari’s sole motivation for making money is to go away to train as an actress, despite her seemingly strict and conservative father forever drumming into her the importance of getting a ‘real’ job. This sub-universe is both gripping and shocking to watch but at the same time, putting it in front of an unaware audience is only going to spark an intense if perverse attraction.
Cécile Trémolières’s set is impressive. The space provided at the Finborough is tiny but much has been squeezed in. The main focus is two sliding doors that often split scenes and create the illusion of more going on than initially appears. Fitting a reasonable costume budget in must be difficult but some of the outfits are really something.
Director Jude Christian has done a good job in bringing the play to life. The space is used effectively and the girls’ presence is thrust upon the audience. The cast themselves are a bit of let-down with Abe’s protagonist demonstrating great vulnerability but a lack of conviction in the script, especially in the more powerful scenes. Tan’s emotion is emitted heavily in her wonderfully expressive face and as a precocious schoolgirl is excellent but further down the line, one doesn’t consistently believe in the character’s intention. Kunjue Li is a natural as the endearing and sad Yumi but whilst I respect any actor that alternates roles, her turn as the self-assured Fumiko packs less of a punch.
There’s certainly potential here but as with some fringe shows, polishing needs to be done. I’d be interested to see this again with a different cast or perhaps more time spent on rehearsals.
Harajuku Girls is playing at Finborough Theatre until 21 March. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.