Soho Theatre, London – until 29 October 2016
Haleema, Ruhab and Tisana have been friends for their whole lives. Like other girls, they enjoy chatting about celebrities, boys, and their future plans whilst doing each others’ hair. Even after they are kidnapped by an unnamed African terrorist group that attacked their village, they try to maintain a degree of normality in the face of forced prayers, attacks on their camp and the disappearance of other girls.
Short, episodic scenes span an unknown (but substantial) amount of time in Theresa Ikoko’s first full-length play. The girls’ youthful optimism gradually deteriorates in the face of a horrific reality that forces them to grow up too quickly, but with only the three characters and action limited to that which is between them, the story becomes rather sanitised and distant. The focus on telling rather than showing their ordeal diminishes the impact and importance of the play’s message.
Western pop culture is a frequent reference point in which the girls find solace throughout. They bond over Beyoncé, Disney princesses and the royal family. The unobtainable lifestyle of wealth and materialism provides comfort and an escape from the increasing threat to their lives, and serves as a powerful juxtaposition highlighting Western privilege that subsequently evokes guilt. It’s a great literary device, and Ikoko uses it to good effect.
The cast are excellent. Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s older Haleema is feminism incarnate, an inspiring warrior of a woman full of biting comments and ferocious activism. Yvette Boakye as Ruhab gets the best character journey of the three – her transition from capricious child to serious adult is most upsetting to witness. Tisana (Abiola Ogunbiyi) is the youngest, a sweet child that doesn’t fully comprehend the gravity of the circumstances and most susceptible to the inevitable trauma the girls face.
There are some unconventional design choices by Rosanna Vize – the forced perspective set creates a claustrophobic cave or shack but is undeniably pink. Though the colour of girls, its stark cleanliness is puzzling. The pile of grain in the corner is the same colour and used for various purposes. Though the symbolism of the design is clear, the execution further detaches the characters’ experiences from reality.
Ikoko’s script is certainly compelling storytelling and serves as a powerful reminder at how quickly issues become “old news” but still remain a problem. Her focus, whilst humanising these distant girls in Africa with lives cut short or forever changed, diminishes the terrorism that does this to them despite an unforgettable end to the story.
Girls runs through 29 October.
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