Chewing Gum Dreams, National Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

The image of chewing gum is a vivid, evocative primer for Michaela Coel’s miniature powerhouse of a monologue. It’s sweet, insubstantial, the stuff of adolescence; its bubbles, like the dreams of Coel’s teenage protagonist, are light as air. But they are also fragile and punctured at the lightest touch, leaving behind little more than a sticky mess, swiftly discarded and trodden underfoot.

14-year-old Tracey Gordon, Coel’s spiky, outspoken narrator, is the sort of girl who teachers roll their eyes at and adults edge away from on the bus. She passes the journey into school mercilessly taunting her cousin and whiles away maths lessons with talk of tits and condoms. Yet for all her swagger and gobbiness, she is also just a teenager, smarting from the world’s cruelties and buzzing with the experiences it offers up. Life is the sharp slap of a hand and the melting gaze of a boy.

Coel’s giddy, fast-paced narrative is a jumble of contrasts. In one moment, a friendship that has been built over years crumbles in seconds; in the next, a crush explodes into life with firework intensity. These violent shifts in tone, far from derailing Coel’s play, beautifully convey the instability of adolescence and its hormone-fuelled careering from ecstasy to despair. Likewise, Coel is adept at realising the internal contradictions of her young characters, capturing with razor-sharp accuracy both the vicious cruelty and fierce loyalty of teenagers.

The vitality and charm of Coel’s performance more than matches the observational flair of her writing. The central figure of Tracey is sketched with detail and compassion, while the cast of supporting characters are inhabited with a vividness that simultaneously brings them to life in their own right and suggests Tracey’s own talent for mimicry and delight in performing. With her mean turn of phrase and killer comic timing, Coel’s teenager clearly relishes her position in the centre of attention.

What ultimately makes the piece, however, is the vulnerability and lack of self-worth that peeks through the bolshy exterior. Young, black and trapped in a cycle of poverty, Tracey has no illusions about her position in life: “I’m not smart enough to be someone; I’m just smart enough to know I’m no one”. Beneath the broad comic strokes of Tracey’s anecdotes, Coel colours in a world of abuse, neglect and withheld opportunities, where aspirations are barely whispered. Told by her boyfriend that she should aim higher, Tracey responds with blinking incomprehension.

Despite this bleak injection of reality, the dead-end despair is tempered with humour, friendship and a fragile note of optimism. It is rare that a piece of theatre can wear its social critique so lightly and yet with such fierce, damning intent. Coel never lets her targets off the hook, but her characters continue to embrace life in spite of its injustices, stubbornly and good-humouredly getting by. As Tracey would say, chin raised defiantly, “life goes on, innit”.

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