Harajuku Girls, Finborough Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

On paper, Harajuku Girls is an intriguing prospect. Francis Turnly’s play promises to examine the social and economic pressures on young Japanese women through the journey of two friends from innocent cosplay to less-than-innocent image clubs in twenty-first century Tokyo. The marketing blurb’s emphasis on image and fantasy, when I first read it, strikes me as having lots of mileage: it poses implicit questions about who is looking, whose desires are really being indulged, who is in control. Plus, it’s directed by Jude Christian, whose assured and striking production of I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole at the Gate last year immediately grabbed my attention.

Which makes it all the more disappointing when it struggles to land. Expectations can be dangerous things and unfair markers against which to judge a production, but Harajuku Girls is muddled by any measure. To its credit, it is trying to do a lot – too much, perhaps, causing it to wobble under the weight of its own ambitions. Through the story of best friends Mari and Keiko, Turnly casts his gaze on various of Tokyo’s less savoury aspects, from panty shops to love hotels, while at the same time attempting to tackle big questions around agency, tradition, family, freedom, sexual politics, consumerism … the list goes on and on.

At the centre of this web of ideas is Haruka Abe’s naive but determined Mari, a would-be actress who is quickly persuaded to put her talent for role-play to profitable use when her parents refuse to support her through drama school. Her rebellious trajectory might be familiar, but her particular brand of teenage defiance opens up underexplored avenues. Spurred on by Keiko, Mari joins her friend in working at an image club, where the two one-time cosplayers once again don outfits, this time to act out the sexual fantasies of a constant parade of men. They claim to be calling the shots, but bit by bit their grasp on events slips away from them. As a counterpoint to this murky underworld, meanwhile, we see odd glimpses of Mari’s strict, concerned parents and her childhood friend Yumi, whose dead-end job offers little argument for pursuing more legitimate employment.

For all the themes knocking around, though, it’s sometimes hard to locate the critique – by no means obligatory in a piece of theatre, but it feels strangely lacking in a play that’s so clearly aiming its fire on something. Is it the exploitative, unseen owners of the image clubs who are to blame? The pressures from family and culture that send Mari and Keiko to one of these establishments? The entire industry of illicit sex? The continuing vein of misogyny and discrimination that runs through the society of both play and audience? All of the above? By the end, I’m still not sure. Acknowledging complexity is one thing, butHarajuku Girls seems, like its protagonists, to progressively lose its way, not helped by a production that is just as unsure.

After so vividly capturing the bright, plastic, grubby allure and repulsion of modern capitalism in Goya, Christian’s depiction of Tokyo’s seedy underside is oddly diluted. What should be garish, flashing neon is instead muted watercolour. It all just feels a bit lacklustre, from the tentative performances to Cécile Trémolières’ ungainly, laborious set design. As the actors shift around bits of furniture between scenes, their attempts to keep up momentum with bursts of “aren’t we all having such fun?” laughter and dancing are increasingly strained – apt, maybe, but awkward to watch. If this absence of colour and animation is the point – as well it could be given the subject matter – then the production lacks the confidence to fully make it, instead leaving that promising premise mired in a tangle of question marks.

Photo: Alexander Newton.

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Pack, Finborough Theatre

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Originally written for Time Out.

The winner of last year’s Papatango New Writing Competition, Dawn King’s ‘Foxfinder’, conjured a haunting vision of a world built on the cultivation of fear. This year’s offering from Louise Monaghan explores fears and prejudices that lie much closer to home, bravely grappling with the thorny racial tensions that persist in modern Britain.

Monaghan’s quartet of female protagonists gather each week to master the rules of bridge, while beyond the walls of the community centre they are locked in a game in which the cards always seem to be dealt against them. Widow Deb struggles to raise her wayward teenage son, while her lifelong friend Stephie juggles a friendship with fellow bridge player Nasreen and her souring marriage to a bitter BNP supporter. As the bridge classes intensify, so too do the external strains.

Confined to the classroom, the piece wisely settles on an intimate setting in which to slowly rachet up the pressure, but Louise Hill’s direction visibly labours to bring the urgency of the outside world into this neutral space. As escalating events occur offstage, including the brutal racist beating of a young Pakistani boy, there is an inevitable atmosphere of reportage; someone is always running through the door slightly out of breath.

The evocative single syllable of Monaghan’s title suggests both a deck of playing cards and the gangs behind racist crime, but it also hints at a pack in the sense of a communal group. Appropriately, when the complexities of the play’s subject are most delicately handled, it is through the friendship that cuts across colour and creed.

Everyday Maps for Everyday Use, Finborough Theatre

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Originally written for Time Out.

As cliché would have it, men are from Mars and women are from Venus. For Tom Morton-Smith, however, the alien is all relative. Tracing the cartography of modern sexual hang-ups, his new play asks where we draw the line between permissible fantasy and dangerous perversion – particularly in a hyper-sexualised culture in which, as one character puts it,’everyone has their kink’.

Through the central focus of Maggie, a teenage girl with an unhealthy fixation on tentacled Martians, Morton-Smith’s peculiar concoction throws together pornography and astronomy, HG Wells and explicit chatrooms. Just as Maggie’s best friend Kiph trusts that any fetish can be explained by Google, the point is made that almost every mutation of desire has a context in which it is normalised. Even Freud would have blushed.

But for all this airing of outlandish turn-ons, the play simultaneously recoils from the very taboos it is attempting to break. Despite an uncomfortable recurring fascination with schoolgirls, the issue of paedophilia is clumsily skated over, while the sexual acts themselves are often described with all the toe-curling awkwardness of the schoolyard.

Despite a compelling central performance from Skye Lourie as Maggie, Beckie Mills’s production struggles to tame this sprawling, confused tale. Like the aliens that have invaded Maggie’s sexual imagination, Morton-Smith is wrestling with too many limbs. As scene bleeds into scene and fantasy into fantasy, the overburdened end result is as numbing as the gratuitously sexualised media that lurks half-acknowledged in the background.