Almeida Theatre, London – until 6 October 2018
My friend and comrade-in-the stalls Mr Letts of the Mail has suggested (by means of Twitter, review on Friday, always worth a read) that he was less than pleased by a group of grown women pretending to be children and shouting a chorus about their pussies in a subsidised theatre. Which is fair comment, though wilfully unsympathetic toward Clare Barron’s spirited play about a children’s dance troupe in a fierce American competition, directed by Bijan Sheibani, choreographed by Aline David and very fetchingly designed and lit by Samal Blak and Lee Curran.
Maybe it helps to have been a pubescent teenage girl. And to come fresh from the more literal but equally endearing Lin-Manuel Miranda Bring It On at the Southwark. As for the shouting about pussies, fair enough. My generation felt the term rather too coyly Mrs-Slocombe for our taste, and it is only lately that feminists and the US President severally grabbed it back for common use. But let the ladies shout it: after all we ladies have put up with years and years of literary and theatrical blokes going on and on – and on and on again – about their dicks.
From Portnoy’s Complaint to Alan Bennett’s WH Auden demanding to “suck off” a rent boy at the National (and, review tomorrow, now in York) the line of literary willies stretches out to the crack of doom. Dicks have delighted us long enough. Indeed at one point, I declared a critical fatwa on any show about Young Men Discovering Their Sexuality.
But the aspect potentially most jarring here – adults playing near-pubescent children – is actually no problem: once you pass 50 these days it is quite hard to distinguish between tallish 12-year-olds and young adult women, what with the flicky hair, scrunchies, ballet flats and trackie-bottoms. My own daughter at 14 went to the Old Bailey on an educational visit and got asked by an elderly clerk where she was doing her pupillage. So Sarah Hadland, Nancy Crane, Karla Crome, Ria Zmitrowitz, Kayla Meikle and Manjinder Virk are perfectly convincing, in and out of the dance routines and dressing-room banter.
It’s the banter that makes it. The competitive dance team – overseen by a rather thuggish Brendan Cowell as the teacher, and mystifyingly including one boy, Irfan Shamji less convincing owing to the whiskers – provides a frame and metaphor for the turbulence of everyone’s female puberty. You’re learning your dismaying, changing body, comparing yourself with friends and rivals, fantasising about a future, half-proud and half-ashamed of the glances in the street. There are monologues, notably a tremendous rant from Meikle about her hidden powers which include a good ass and being good at Math, and a nocturnal fantasy from Zmitrowitz – the most troubled of them – about how she will lose her virginity to a handsome Canadian fiancé at age 23, having just bought together a New York apartment “with hardwood floors”. Ah, the impossible dreams of childhood…
Sarah Hadland is both funny and intensely touching as cheerful Sofia who is assaulted by a first period on competition day: in a memorable triple tableau that night she rinses her pants and wards off a sympathetic Mum, while on the two sides of the stage one girl lays out her model horse collection and the other vainly attempts masturbation. Tampons and toys, wanking and weeping, ignorance and speculation and secret societies. That’s puberty. And above all, and movingly often in chorus, there’s a hope that you might make the world OK by dancing through it.
It’s an odd, short evening (105 minutes) but likeable. And dickless. Though one memorable line, never explained, is when a girl blurts out “I saw a penis, once”. It is never explained how. Best not to know.