Harajuku Girls, Finborough Theatre


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.

I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole, Gate Theatre


Originally written for Exeunt.

If stress is the number one modern malady, sleeplessness might just be a close second. Distracted by technology, preoccupied with work and perpetually pumped with caffeine, it is harder now than ever to get a good night’s kip. This is certainly the experience of Rodrigo García’s restless narrator – hence the cumbersome title of this slender, slippery monologue. Railing against the tedium of insomnia and the spectres of capitalism that keep him up at night, García’s unnamed protagonist is adamant that “you have to do something”.

His idea of doing something is blowing his life’s savings, shipping over a fashionable philosopher and breaking into Madrid’s Prado museum out of hours to gaze at Goya’s Black Paintings. An unlikely brand of rebellion. Along for the ride are his two young sons, who in Jude Christian’s bold production take on a startling, scene-stealing form. Joining lone actor Steffan Rhodri on stage are two small, cute and surprisingly loud piglets, greeted with a ripple of excitement from the audience. Immediately, we are in surreal territory.

Like the piglets, who wriggle and squeal in Rhodri’s arms, García’s play is difficult to get a grip on. The furious, fidgety stream of thought goes round in circles – or, perhaps more accurately, spirals, as we never return to quite the same place as before. The narrator is at crisis point, that much is clear, his words a wounded howl against the plastic deities of Coca-Cola and Disneyland. There are hints at a fractured family and a lifetime of disappointments, but all we can be certain of is an underlying queasiness towards the modern world. As our protagonist succinctly puts it, “life’s a bloody mess”.

If modern existence is a cesspit, then we are all rolling in the filth. This is perhaps the point of the piglets, who also stand in for the animal urges and images of gluttony that crop up periodically in García’s text. When the animals’ unpredictable bathroom habits play momentary havoc on stage, it seems apt that Rhodri is literally cleaning up shit. But beyond these obvious associations, the piglets also have a distancing effect, enhancing the protagonist’s dislocation from his sons, the world around him, and possibly even his own existence.

The strange inner world of García’s narrator is strikingly drawn out by Christian’s production, which has created a captivating visual and aural landscape. The show opens with Rhodri’s tall form crammed into a grubby miniature kitchen mounted on the back wall, which suddenly begins to turn on its axis; the world is off-kilter and the protagonist is a hamster trapped inside an ever-turning wheel. This visual fluency is characteristic of Fly Davis’ design, which hems Rhodri and the piglets inside a clinical white space, surrounded by toys as brittle as the happiness they promise. Adrienne Quartly’s uneasy sound design, meanwhile, presses in on an already beleaguered mind with a tumult of heartbeats, ticking clocks and blaring sirens.

At the centre of this bewildering, claustrophobic world, Rhodri makes a compellingly embattled anti-hero. In spite of the anger, self-destruction and unsavoury streak of misogyny glimpsed in the character written by García, Rhodri renders him surprisingly sympathetic – more of a bitter lost soul than a listless misanthrope. There is also a sense, supported by the visual language of the piece, that his response to the modern world is the only one left available; even if his pursuit of Goya ultimately lacks meaning, it’s better than the Disneyland his sons would prefer. García’s short monologue might be a frustrating, evasive slip of a thing, but this arresting production makes its searching, impotent fury feel uncannily resonant.

Steffan Rhodri’s theatrical road trip with piglets as passengers


Originally written for The Guardian.

On the tiny stage of Notting Hill’s Gate theatre, Steffan Rhodri is joined by a pair of unlikely co-stars. Director Jude Christian’s production of the awkwardly titled I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole has added two small, headstrong piglets to Rodrigo García’s surreal monologue.

“I was bemused by this decision at first,” the actor says, “but I’ve sort of learned to love it.” He adds that the pigs, who stand in for the protagonist’s two sons, are “unpredictable”, but the chaos and absurdity of their presence is oddly fitting for the piece. The animals and their unscripted behaviour send out a strong signal to audiences: “It immediately sets that surreal tone, that absurd tone of we are not in naturalistic reality here, this is up to you to interpret what this man is on about.”

García’s play follows a man in the grip of a midlife crisis; he is “railing against the materialism of life, but also searching for some meaning”. As the man questions his own existence, he tells the story of a hedonistic road trip with his sons, which culminates with breaking into the Prado museum, in Madrid, to look at Goya’s Black Paintings. The line between fantasy and reality, however, is constantly blurred.

This character’s experience mirrors, to an extent, Rhodri’s reasons for taking on the role. The actor is best known as Dave Coaches from the television comedy Gavin and Stacey, which quickly became a runaway hit for the BBC. Rhodri says of the show that he was “lucky to be involved, but not defined by it”. He has since taken on a string of roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company and in the West End, as well as making a brief appearance in the penultimate Harry Potter film. This production is an opportunity to break out of that mainstream trajectory and do something “completely off the wall”. It is Rhodri’s window-smashing moment.

He is also firm in his belief that this sort of risk-taking, form-pushing work should be the purpose of fringe theatre, pointing out that a play such as this one would never be produced in the West End. “Quite often these days fringe theatre can be used in a very safe way as a vehicle for smaller, cheaper versions of mainstream theatre,” he says. “I think this is very different.”

As well as contending with the whims of the piglets, Rhodri has the formidable task of carrying García’s anarchic narrative alone each night. Although this is Rhodri’s first solo show, he describes himself as “a sucker for a challenge” and is excited about standing the piece up in front of an audience. “I never imagined myself doing a one-man show,” he confesses. “If I’m going to do one, I’d rather do one that breaks all the rules.”

Rhodri is also relishing the challenge of the “particular openness” that this slippery, ambiguous play allows. He compares it to Beckett and the absurdist tradition, as well as identifying “a sort of dreamlike quality that is reminiscent of Pinter”.

What most excites Rhodri – and, he hopes, the audiences who will come to see it – are the ideas that García is grappling with. “It is about the big questions of life, in a very short, punchy piece. How should life be lived? How should life be experienced? Do we need to make plans and be safe, or do we just need to do things?”

Photo: Tristram Kenton.