Girls and Boys starring Carey Mulligan – review at Royal Court, London – ‘a blindsiding climax’
It’s a worry when Euripides is thanked in a play’s acknowledgements. In a way, the brutal, blindsiding climax to Dennis Kelly’s monologue, Girls and Boys, feels inevitable – but when it hits, seemingly coming out of nowhere, it’s still a queasy experience. It’s difficult to say though, whether the slow, almost banal build up makes this ending worth it.
Carey Mulligan’s character spends most of the play delivering a kind of lecture to the audience. She describes meeting her husband and the subsequent slow breakdown of her marriage. Between those scenes a curtain lifts to reveal a huge living room, where Mulligan retreats to enact snapshots of daily life with her (invisible) son and daughter: arguments erupt, siblings squabble.
The stories from the lecture sections are writ small in the enacted scenes with Mulligan’s kids: the machismo and unbridled violence of men, the conditioning that makes sons and daughters the way they are. But what feels like a study of gender and how society shapes our behaviours suddenly, in a swift, brutal, gory twist, becomes something else.
It’s something of a change to hear Mulligan deliver lines like: “if he doesn’t come soon he’s going to fuck me right into that puddle of puke”, and there are some lovely details to her conversational performance – her persistent smile and sense of humour – that take on a new meaning when the play shifts into its final gear.
But her performance is a little inconsistent. Even though the ambiguity of the setup is tantalising – where is she? – sometimes it feels like a naturalistic one-to-one conversation, sometimes like a rehearsed speech.
Everything we’ve come to expect from Kelly is in here: harsh similes, fishing around in the viscera of language, some neat gags and quips. But in its every detail, Lyndsey Turner’s production is monotone and monochrome.
Es Devlin’s set – split into a small and empty downstage area where Mulligan delivers her mini lectures, and a huge chasm of a living room upstage where everything is blank and blue – looks drained of colour and life, save for a blood red toy truck, or mug.
Similarly Mulligan’s performance is calculatedly one-note. Her flat voice gallops through the lines, her arms stay closely by her side. The stillness and quiet are at odds with the recurring theme of violence in Mulligan’s words.
Not until three quarters of the way into the play does that studied blandness pay off, when it’s revealed to be the result of gutting, lingering grief. The insistence on quiet and stillness becomes disturbing, it isolates the incredibly detailed brutality of the play’s ending. It pays off, just.