Walking into the theatre to the sounds of X-Ray Spex and then Siouxsie and the Banshees, was like walking into my youth, although technically I grew up at the end of the eighties so only really saw the final moments of these bands in their heyday. So I took my seat in the half full stalls, not knowing what to expect, but I was quietly hopeful for something loud, brash, unique and interesting.
Girl(ing) is the story of Mary Ann Girling, a nineteenth century woman who believed that she was a physical incarnation of God and set out to spread her teachings, with the aim of eventually bringing about global peace and an end to human suffering, where she would rule as the mother of mankind. To achieve this aim, she used a mixture of story telling, preaching, manipulation, basic cons and the use of hysteria, particularly when her group became known for shaking in religious rapture. In the modern age, she would likely be judged far more harshly than this play chose to do, if anything this production took an even more gentle tone that I would have expected, given their claims to be Punk Rock.
The play was written, designed and choreographed by the performers and each one of them shows real promise as a developing actor. Each of the woman who portrayed Mary (Charlotte Boyle, Mai-Lin Hagiwara & Samantha Lund), did so confidently, aggressively and occasionally, to the amusement of the small audience, with a powerful swagger of potty mouth shouting that brought a grin to the face. There were times when their Punk Rock snarls were genuinely exciting and their singing was always competent. The drumming performed by show writer Florian Saturly was very well played and his timing was excellent, as was his portrayal of god. The stand out performance for me was by Ellie Morris as Eliza, who portrayed the mouse like qualities of a neglected and abused young woman to such effect that I was not sure that she was actually ready to be performing in front of an audience! As the show progressed, it became clearer that she was indeed acting and not just shaking with stage fright.
Throughout the performance, I was not convinced of the merit of a stage play dedicated to Mary Ann Girling; there were several times when they portrayed her as a con artist, or having such low morals that she would happily drop a trusted friend to achieve stardom or use emotional blackmail to get a wanted outcome. She did not come across as likable, despite the standing that she made for herself. There was instead a darker, maybe even a Machiavellian feeling to her, especially towards the end of the play when she abandoned her most loyal follower and took her money. If there was any portrayal of vulnerability in her, it was as a mentally ill person who no doubt suffered from the conditions of extreme poverty that existed at that time.
The unlikable main character was not the only problem that I felt that this show displayed. Given the size of the venue, it felt a little superfluous to amplify the drum kit, especially when at the start the sound levels were so bad that the vocal performances were entirely lost in the noise. As the show progressed, the vocals were eventually amplified, but sadly much of the song detail was lost, making the story hard to follow at times. Amusingly, ear plugs were provided on entry, but if they had been used, I doubt that any of the remaining detail could have been heard.
I am sure that with extra time and further development, there is a lot that this play could tell about the life of this extraordinary woman, but this evening, it failed to satisfy. I don’t think that I was alone in this feeling, when the cast tried to involve the audience, a lot of whom were old enough to remember Punk from the first time around, no one particularly wanted to play along. Maybe it was the incongruity of combining Punk Rock with cynical cult forming, or maybe this was based on a confused understanding of what Punk stood for. For me, the bits of Punk that I loved the most were the powerful philosophical messages of nihilism, political protest and anarchy. What this woman stood for was the strict adherence to religious law, that she was too morally bankrupt to stick too herself. The only resemblance to any form of Punk would maybe with a comparison with the antics of Malcolm McLaren, who many of my Punk friends disowned from the scene years ago!
This is not a terrible show, but nor is it a great one. It has some real moments of fun and some moments of genuine sadness. How accurate it is may be open to debate, especially when one cannot make out the message through the garbled sound, that thankfully improved as the show went on. I also took some one along who knew the subject matter intimately and was able to clarify some of the less clear elements for me. So maybe read up on Mother Mary first and then make up your own mind as you watch the show. These performers clearly believed in her enough to write her biography and there really are far worse ways of spending the evening than watching fun, loud musical theatre.
Girl(ing) runs at The Wardrobe Theatre until 6th March