When I saw Dennis Kelly’s name on the poster for the Royal Court’s production of Girls & Boys I knew it was going to be a macabre type of show. It was my theatre friend who saw Carey Mulligan’s name to headline the show first, which was mentioned on Twitter last year. Thank God she booked the tickets back then. After three months of advance booking, I found myself sitting three rows away from The Great Gatsby (2013) and Suffragette (2015) female star.
In 90 minutes—without an interval break—Mulligan delivers a compelling monologue fuelled by extreme emotions. It starts off fun and witty, yet gradually it descends into a hostile and frightful environment. Leave it to the crafty performance of Mulligan to use Kelly’s words and turn them into a slippery ride to domestic family hell.
We don’t know the name of her character, but this woman, whoever she is, explains herself from her early university years, mindlessly doing what any sexually curious and financially unstable 20-year-old gets up to. She takes a gap year, travels to a few places in Europe and witnesses the strangest exchange between some hot models trying to jump a flight queue with a bookworm. He hits the audience with the punch line, ‘but I get to sleep with one of you, right?’
Searching for her dream career in media, nailing a job interview for a competitive role that has hundreds of applicants and meeting the man of her dreams, it all seems to go swimmingly. The jokes and Londoner’s accent, which made me feel somewhat closer to Mulligan’s character, took it down a notch to a personal level. This is the type of girl that I’d gladly share a glass of wine with. She freely confides to the audience about her deepest and darkest thoughts as if we had known her for ages.
In between monologues, she speaks to invisible children in a spacious living room, designed by Es Devlin. It is drained of colour. Most of the furniture, kitchen utensils, books and props are painted light blue. yet if you look closely one or two items are in their original colour. Perhaps, they are to symbolise the nameless mother’s key memories.
She speaks to the children as if they are actively running around the room, growing up slowly, causing a mess and asking for trouble. Mulligan holds, hugs and caresses these transparent kids and boldly speaks to them as if they need to be taught a lesson. There are tender and soft moments present, too, through Mulligan’s taut acting prowess. Despite the beginning, the semi-improv performance of clever lines, happiness and craziness with children, you get the sense that something isn’t right. Why can’t we see the children?
Director Lyndsey Turner lets Mulligan make do with the text as she sees fit. Kelly’s words are powerful and the message is cutting like ice. The more we see Mulligan with these invisible children, the more we begin to build a connection to them just like Mulligan’s character—a mother who soon becomes motherless.
It’s about family annihilation. It is the act of a family member killing their family. Although not mentioned in the play, it reminded me of my undergraduate studies in Anthropology and made me think about infanticide. Lions, chimpanzees, in fact, a lot of animals commit infanticide. When a male moves onto a different female to copulate and produce new offspring with another fertile female, he kills his offspring from the previous female. It’s a sad thought, but humans are still animals, just titled ‘rational’ in most scientific textbooks. What’s so different between the animal kingdom and modern civilization?
Kelly’s work isn’t a political play as such, but it strips bear the experience of a mother who says it how it is. Family annihilators are usually men who are in high positions overcome by stress, insecurity or financial constraints. Usually, the male commits suicide after he murders his offspring. Cases of family annihilation are not known to the criminal justice system and many mental health organisations. Mulligan will make you want to well up and cry inside. Don’t be surprised by how hard it may hit you.