fri 14/06/2024

£1 Thursdays, Finborough Theatre review - dazzling new play is as funny and smart as its two heroines | reviews, news & interviews

£1 Thursdays, Finborough Theatre review - dazzling new play is as funny and smart as its two heroines

£1 Thursdays, Finborough Theatre review - dazzling new play is as funny and smart as its two heroines

Seldom does one see a writer's vision so perfectly realised on stage

Yasmin Taheri and Monique Ashe-Palmer in £1 Thursdays - holding it together in BradfordAlex Brenner

It’s 2012 and the London Olympics might as well be happening on the Moon for Jen and Stacey. In fact, you could say the same for everyone else scrabbling a living in Bradford – or anywhere north of Watford – and we know what those left-behind places did when presented with a ballot box in 2016 and 2019.

Not that such weighty matters concern our two girls, out for banging (in more senses than one) £1 Thursday night out, living for the sex and booze and rock’n’roll that get them from one week to the next. (Writer, Kat Rose-Martin, wisely keeps other temptations out of arm’s reach, one of many decisions she gets exactly right in a comedy-first, social documentary-second show).

Our sharp-tongued teens are full-on BFFs, sharing everything from cleavage-enhancing push-ups to STD test results. But, in one of the few scenes that does not feel as fresh as so much else in this fizzing coming-of-age comedy, that second F is threatened by Stacey’s plans to go to dance college in Newcastle and Jen’s desire to escape continually butting up against her impostor syndrome that kicks in pretty much anywhere beyond the BD postcode. Forever might be terminated by Freshers Week.

If the set-up is familiar, it’s so buoyed by the wisecracks, honesty and exuberance of the language and the commitment of the performances that it’s only later that one feels the influence of Willy Russell, John Godber and Jack Rosenthal – and that’s not bad company for a young playwright to keep. The invention of metaphor and simile is so remorseless that Viz’s legendary Profanisaurus also came to mind – more praise of the highest order. The script is served wonderfully well by the two leads, Yasmin Taheri (Jen) and Monique Ashe-Palmer (Stacey, pictured above), cast by director Vicky Moran in, surely, just about the best decision she has made. Both completely inhabit these girls, finding the fun, but also providing glimpses of a subconscious code that anchors their lives as respectable working class kids. They’re promiscuous and have only a slight regard for the rules with which they disagree, but they’re loyal, thoughtful and sensitive under that carapace of sweary, no-filter conversations. They know the importance of friends and family in a precarious world, which is why any further threat to their tiny ecosystem, from without or within, can knock them off-balance. 

As the play progresses (it is a little too long at 100 minutes or so all-through) Taheri slowly uncovers the pathos in Jen’s transformation, holding her a little more straight in the back, a little more self-possessed, a little more humble – more grown-up in other words. But there’s a cost in passing from one world to another and she wrestles, at times heartbreakingly, with what she must leave behind.

Ashe-Palmer is equally successful in the task of showing how much Stacey misses the Jen she knew from age 11, how a single bad decision at a vulnerable moment can destroy what really matters in a tight teen friendship. Crucially, we never lose sight of the same two girls that we saw when they were partying, their spirits still sparkling in changed circumstances, the spectre of sentimentality held at arm’s length. Such subtlety in storytelling is a testament to the commitment of the writer, director and actors to the collaborative art of theatre – you really don't see it all that often.

The play isn’t quite a two-hander. Sian Breckin dispenses good sense with the Tetley’s as Jen’s mum, slightly overcooking the menopause jokes, but, as representation matters go, that makes up for a thousand or so plays I’ve seen that do not mention it once. Joseph Ayre doubles as a wrong-un boyfriend for Stacey, a little underwritten and as Jen’s university interviewer, who proves to be both more and less than he seems. Both do well in the wake of the leads’ incandescent presence.

It’s rare to laugh as much as I did at a new play, rare also to see a slice of life portrayed with neither judgement nor agenda puncturing the tension and shrivelling the jokes, trusting the audience to draw its own conclusions. It’s raw, funny and thought-provoking and, I venture, true. 

How would I know, a 60-year-old, male Londoner? Well, 43 years ago, I was a working-class Northerner, almost as bolshy as Jen, at a Russell Group university also being interviewed for BSc Maths. I was as surprised as she was to be made an unconditional offer and, after a false start in my case, found that I wasn’t so out-of-place amongst the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers and accountants just because my dad mended crashed cars and my mother worked days on school dinners and evenings in the local cinema.

For a play to hit such a bullseye with a critic is not unusual, but it’s more often related to salad days at Cambridge or suburban middle-age ennui leading to divorce, not tales about the Jens of this world. And there are more of us than you might think.

There'd be more still if we were more willing to role-model the opportunities available when a young person from the estates of our benighted towns and cities chooses the unfashionable, expensive, frightening path of running the hard yards through hard subjects in hard schools. But, sometimes, you find your tribe in the most unexpected of places.    

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