Southwark Playhouse, London – until 25 March 2017
Southwark Playhouse’s website describes The Diary Of A Teenage Girl as “a coming of age adventure of a San Francisco teenager who begins a secret affair with her mother’s boyfriend”. Rarely has a show’s blurb been quite so cynically exploitative. A truer description would have been “a brilliantly performed study of how a 15 year old girl, vulnerable and impressionable, is preyed upon by the the child-abuser who’s dating her mom.” But that’s not quite as catchy, huh? A stunning troupe of actors capture Marielle Heller‘s interpretation of Phoebe Gloeckner‘s original work. But just because a graphic novel translates a human journey into a comic-book narrative doesn’t make the story comical.
Try explaining that to the Southwark Playhouse audience, whose chuckles early on as Rona Morison‘s juvenile Minnie is penetrated by Monroe, her mother’s adult boyfriend, are simply nauseating. Kookie kids discovering sexuality amongst their peers is one thing – and Heller/Morison’s exposition of the highs and lows of teenage angst are, quite possibly accurate. But it’s no laughing matter when a drama portrays an emotionally neglected girl being exploited by a predatory paedophile.
All the performances are flawless. Morison, who is onstage throughout, offers up a consummate performance that is as tragic as it is brilliant. She not only captures the transient shallowness of adolescence, but also manages to convince us of Minnie’s need and desperation for love. Everyone else plays carefully crafted caricatures that support the young girl’s arc. The recently Olivier-nominated Rebecca Trehearn gives a scorchingly powerful turn as Minnie’s distant, dysfunctional mother, confronted with the unspeakable and confusing horror of discovering her lover has been abusing her daughter. Jamie Wilkes’ Monroe is chillingly and believably ordinary in his portrayal of a domesticated monster.
This production of The Diary Of A Teenage Girl takes a 5-star cast and bundles them into a 1-star vehicle. (Not surprisingly, Heller’s 2015 movie version of the tale bombed at the box office too.) While being a 15 year old girl who is Bowie-focussed and sexually curious may well be normal, to describe the relationship between Minnie and Monroe as an “affair” sees the producers stray dangerously close to bestowing Monroe’s criminality with an acceptable facade of normality too. Powerfully performed for sure, but in the hands of directors Parker and Ewbank, the story is reduced to little more than a prurient peep-show into the devastation of child sexual abuse.