REVIEW: Girls And Dolls

Frenetic, often hilarious, and ultimately gloomy, Lisa McGee's Girls And Dolls, brought back to the stage by Sodabread Theatre Company and Millennium Forum Productions, is a triumphant staging of the Derry Girls writer's debut play where subtle, slow-burning, poetic heartbreak emerges with quiet force from a snappy sea of fun and frolics.

Skilfully directed by Gerard McCabe and earnestly performed by Jennifer Barry and Jamie-Lee O'Donnell, it is a twisted window into the evergreen nostalgia of the 1980s, reminisced and dissected from the wiser, more nihilistic point-of-view of twenty-first century adulthood.

The "girls" are Emma (Barry) and Clare (O'Donnell), two women looking back to an eighties Derry-Londonderry where they met at the swings and built a tree house while a young woman and her baby daughter moved in nearby.

The "dolls" are literal and metaphorical. When children, the girls see the toys as necessary recreation. When adults, they're dolling themselves up in costume to play their younger selves and several other characters in an imagined past, around and upon the playground they grew up on.

Quite possibly, McGee has given us a darker Toy Story, which was a pretty dark children's trilogy in the first place. For beneath the backdrop of Creggan, the series of familiar eighties themes on the screen behind the girls and the frequent amusement – the script is as funny and lively as the best episodes of Derry Girls – there is tragedy. Not for what is, or even what was, but for what never really was.

Be they children, or be they adults, Emma and Clare appear to exist in a bubble created by themselves for themselves, which, while vital for friendship and livelihood, leaves them unprepared for situations where sudden exposure to outside forces demands a behavioural shift. An emotional maturity that neither girl is able to command.

It was clear among the Derry Girls (and boy), and it's just as clear here - an us-against-the-world mentality dependent on repeated momentary pleasures amidst an entrenched routine that the protagonists accept as a distraction, even an escape, from the troubles and Troubles around them. The thought of how dangerous playgrounds could be back then has no place in the green and glistening past that Emma and Clare have created for themselves - one doesn't even want to contemplate how the girls, as children, would cope with the more amplified pressures of social media land.

The equally green and glistening Emerald City from The Wizard Of Oz is as attractive to Emma and Clare as it is worrying to us, neither girl understanding why Dorothy would retreat from the colourful land of Oz to her seemingly monochrome but reliably familial home. They may be right in implying that "there's no place like Oz", but that would be ignoring the frequent hazards behind its glossy visual splendour. It wasn't so much the memories of Oz that Dorothy retained from her journey over the rainbow as the lessons she learned and strong friendships – a crash course in adulthood to her is an ultimately misguided adolescent dream for Emma and Clare. Yet, in their alienated landscape, what else do the girls have to cling on to?

Every challenge in McGee's exceptionally fluent script is successfully met both by McCabe and actresses Barry and O'Donnell. Barry, of Young Offenders fame, thrives in capturing the brogue and mentality of Emma while O'Donnell trades the faux toughness of Derry Girls' Michelle for a pitiable, obsessive-compulsive state of mind and a remarkable talent for mimicry all at once. It's a near-spellbinding performance.

A sharp, bleak yet also comedic deconstruction and ultimate demolition of a lifestyle permeated by childhood nostalgia and broken dreams, Girls And Dolls is as dark as it is human - an entertaining production that will also make you thankful you grew up.

Simon Fallaha

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