Somehow it’s already June. For schoolkids, the summer holiday is near. A time when you might find love, fall out of love, find new friends and make mistakes. This is at the centre of LIT, HighTide and Nottingham Playhouse’s revival of their sell-out 2019 show about a schoolgirl’s misadventures over the summer break. Filmed for online audiences, its intense emotional surges create the hormone-filled world of adolescence, but its series of overdramatic peaks avoid nuanced discussion of what leads such schoolkids astray.
Our Year 9 protagonist is a schoolgirl with a punchy three-letter name, like the title, Bex. A candy pink opening introduces her to us, with hair extensions and accent as thick as her make-up. She, somewhat unbelievably, strikes up a friendship with studious, sensible Ruth and they both try to mitigate each other’s subsequent reckless decisions, navigating relationships with the boys and adults around them.
Like so many productions which attempt to portray the tribulations of working-class life, it mistakes unrelenting frankness for biting social realism. Its incessantly prurient, expletive-filled dialogue seems to suggest there’s nothing more to these lives than “wanking” and “cumming”. Its soap opera sensibility of sensationalistic melodrama throws us from one argument to the next, choosing the loud surface rather than delving into the personal toll that sits beneath.
The design also focuses on the roaring energy of raging hormones and emotional extremes. Scenes are punctuated with techno and a lighting colour scheme that looks like a Nicki Minaj music video. Lulu Tam’s LED bars which structure the set provide a striking design appeal and the idea of a world preoccupied with bright parties, but more interestingly represent Bex’s desire to be noticed and looked at to feel valued.
Writer Sophie Ellerby pits stereotypes against each other and presents a reductive dichotomy of schoolkids: they’re either dim and impulsive or nerdy and thoughtful. Similarly, the scene chapters reflect Bex’s wants — “Bex loves Sylvia” — but again reduce the teenage experience to simplistic impulses. The play often feels like a parent’s view and it’s unclear who it’s aimed at: its brash aesthetic is likely to isolate parents, while its parochial depiction of teenage life is likely off-putting for a younger audience.
Despite this, Eve Austin manages to make Bex more than one-dimensional. The production’s greatest success is showcasing the sheer talent of this incredibly confident actor. Her highly animated performance is all pouts, scowls and tilts of the head as she turns provocation into a weapon of control. Her fixed stares suggest a precise targeting of what she wants, highly aware of how to seduce and win affection. She also attracts sympathy by letting this pretence fall away when she shows the naive vulnerability in how exploiting yourself and being exploited by others are dangerously coextensive.
There are too few moments, however, which pull through this more interesting and important exploration of how young girls are left to entrap themselves in defining their existence in relation to men. When it does eventually arrive, writer Sophie Ellerby relies on cliché: “You shouldn’t need a man to tell you you’re beautiful — you should just feel it, in here [hand on heart].”
Likewise, her mother’s death is treated as an ancillary past event, with fleeting references, instead of discussing its role in sparking this fallout. The neglect of social services or school support networks also escape real criticism. It’s a piece which prefers to consider the effect rather than the cause, so does little to advance the discourse beyond the conclusion of the child being the ultimate victim.
Despite these misgivings, there’s a bravery in Ellerby’s writing which commits to its convictions all the way to an ending which doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality. However, the play’s domination with teenage stereotypes and cliches comes too close to misrepresenting the lives it attempts to dramatise.
LIT was available on-demand until 6th June. For more information see HighTide’s website.