Theatre review: Girls & Boys, MTC

Despite a fine performance from Nikki Shiels, this MTC production of Dennis Kelly’s powerful script is enervated and underwhelming.
Girls & Boys

On a starkly dressed stage, The Woman (Nikki Shiels) tells a compelling story of love and loathing, joy and tragedy – the story of how she met her husband-to-be in an airport queue, the travails of chasing a career and raising a family, and the slow accretion of tensions that eventually drove the pair apart.

The Woman’s story, as written by British playwright Dennis Kelly, is shockingly common – its climax could be drawn from newspaper headlines today in any country in the world. What makes Kelly’s take on the story unique is his precise language (deliciously employed in a scene where The Woman differentiates between being ‘slutty’ and ‘slaggy’, for instance); the character’s bawdy humour, class consciousness and growing confidence (traits deliciously embodied by Shiels); and the tonal shifts that punctuate proceedings.

Between The Woman’s chatty conversational addresses to the audience are a series of shorter scenes in which she mothers her precocious young daughter Leanne and younger, boisterous son Darren, though the children themselves are never seen.

Their absence takes on greater weight as the play unfolds; so too does The Woman’s unconscious indoctrination of her children with patriarchal values – part of a rich seam of polemic, politics and commentary that underpin the script as a whole.

As the production reaches its climax, Kelly’s writing briefly shifts slightly away from drama towards an almost lecture-like sequence (giving proceedings ‘a TED-talk like tone,’ as I noted in my review of State Theatre Company South Australia’s superb production earlier in the year) but even here, his laser-like focus on gender politics remains compelling and provocative.

Read: Theatre review: Barracking for the Umpire

While Shiels’ strong performance matches the best aspects of the script, Kate Champion’s direction seems to hinder rather than facilitate the actor’s connection with the audience. For much of the play Shiels is restricted to performing upstage rather than coming downstage, close to the audience, while the occasional use of a live video feed via a camera onstage feels intrusive and contrived – it detracts from the drama rather than emphasising it, and adds a layer of artifice that feels at odds with the script’s starkly naturalistic tone. Similarly, the decision to utilise further projections in the play’s final scene mistakes bathos for pathos, resulting in a maudlin climax rather than a moving one.

Overall, such decisions give the impression that Champion doesn’t trust the script enough to let Kelly’s words, as voiced by Shiels in a nuanced and mercurial performance – and the actor herself – take centre stage for the entire duration of the play.

Nikki Shiels in MTC’s 2022 production Girls & Boys. Photo: Jeff Busby.

Conversely, Amelia Lever-Davidson’s lighting design is subtle and reserved, able to hint at the gathering darkness without resorting to visual cliché; Sidney Millar’s compositions show similar restraint, save for the occasional, distracting aural flourish in the form of a ticking clock in certain scenes – an overly familiar trope marking the inevitable countdown to the play’s grim denouement.  

The cumulative effect of such decisions drains the play’s climax of drama – which may well have been a deliberate decision by Champion in order to spare audiences the full, anguished impact of the unfolding story. Regardless of whether it was deliberate or not, the result left this reviewer distanced and dissatisfied – thoughtful and regretful rather than shaken and deeply moved.

Girls & Boys
By Dennis Kelly
A Melbourne Theatre Company production
Trigger warning: This production contains descriptions of graphic violence, family abuse and suicide

Director: Kate Champion
Original Set and Costume Designer: Marg Horwell
Lighting Designer: Amelia Lever-Davidson
Composer and Sound Designer: Sidney Millar
Voice and Dialect Coach: Geraldine Cook-Dafner
Associate Set Designer and Video Designer: Romanie Harper
Associate Costume Designer: Sophie Woodward
Assistant Director: Stephen Phillips
Performed by Nikki Shiels
Standby Performer: Emily Goddard

Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio
21 October – 26 November 2022

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts