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REVIEW: Girls & Boys at Here for Now Theatre Company

/By / Aug 7, 2022

Content warning: this review contains mention of extreme violence and sexual assault, and spoilers about the play.

Just a short walk from the Tom Patterson Theatre is a much humbler performance space, with a gem of contemporary playwriting tucked into its linoleum. Here for Now, AD’d by Fiona Mongillo, is in residence at the Falstaff Family Centre in Stratford, separate from the Festival but of supremely high calibre, as evidenced by this production. Girls & Boys is as far from fluff as one can get and certainly not fit for young audiences — but for those able to stomach its subject matter, it’s a poignant and boundary-pushing performance well worth the jaunt across the Avon.

Dennis Kelly’s play is a monologue from a mother who, at first glance, might seem quite normal, if a little haunted. She met her husband at the airport; she carved out a space for herself in the film industry; she gave birth to two healthy children, a boy and a girl. Her life was normal, idyllic even, small successes embedded into a happy existence.

But her husband slowly receded, and whispers of an affair bubbled to the top of the crumbling marriage. He went away for a little while, leaving the family to wonder where he’d gone — until he came back with a horrifying vengeance.

Girls & Boys is a pressure cooker of a play, a tennis match between tragedy and the family life which preceded it. Kelly’s words tumble and ricochet, intoxicating in texture and trajectory. The story is easy to follow, and yet structured such that every next moment is surprising. The familicide as described is frank, detached, and clinical in its handling of details, recounted in small fragments until the well bursts — and when it does, there’s no choice but to be swept away.

Mongillo occupies every inch of her playing space — a small platform in what’s usually a kindergarten classroom. Mongillo’s text work is sublime, her physicality precise yet understated. Mongillo never telegraphs the doom waiting at the end of the play, and yet in retrospect, the sadness punctuating her earlier scenes is completely earned, subtle, and real as the play oscillates between moments in the present and those spent with memories of her children. Kelly’s language seems a natural fit for Mongillo — and she implements Kelly’s prescribed working-class accent flawlessly. The occasional humour communicated in the woman’s happier moments never feels forced or at odds with the thrust of the play. Director Lucy Jane Atkinson has coaxed out the best in both Mongillo and Kelly, directing with a light hand and allowing Mongillo to fall into a pacing that feels completely natural.

Girls & Boys enters into exchange not only with real-world events, but other English solo shows: structurally, there’s a strong resemblance to Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall, about the loss of a daughter in a villainless accident — it’s striking how similar Stephens’ and Kelly’s monologues are, despite a fundamental difference of to whom blame might be ascribed in the untimely death of a child as narrated by a parent. As well, there’s a remarkable similarity to one of Sarah Kane’s unpublished plays, Comic Monologue, which recounts in great detail an oral rape. As such Girls & Boys references the controversial In-Yer-Face movement of the ‘90s but complicates it — we never see images of the crime committed, only hear about it from the surviving mother. In a way, it’s as if Kelly has married In-Yer-Face content with ancient Greek storytelling methods, peppering in allusions to contemporary culture and turns of phrase. This sort of ingenuity in the relationship between form and content is solo writing at its best, and it’s all the better in the capable hands of Mongillo and Atkinson.

Girls & Boys is no easy watch, and could do with a more substantial content warning for this production. That’s one of the age-old uncertainties surrounding plays heavy in subject matter — just how much can audiences be told in advance of a play without lessening the impact of its content? I’m on the side of the audience, here: I simply can’t imagine the experience of Girls & Boys as a parent or victim of family violence, and particularly not without a more transparent warning about the play’s contents. But as a piece of theatre — spare, unpretentious, and superbly conceived — Girls & Boys at Here for Now simply shines, a welcome instance of contemporary British dramaturgy just across the river from the Stratford Festival.

Girls & Boys runs through August 7 at Here for Now Theatre Company. Tickets are available here.

Aisling Murphy

Aisling Murphy

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, NEXT Magazine, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.



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