A Girl in School Uniform (Walks into a Bar)
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Ali Pidsley and Lulu Raczka
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Upon my arrival at the theatre, I was warned by one of the press officers that Lulu Raczka's new play would be "extremely dark". This hardly seemed surprising given the uncompromising nature of her two previous works—Nothing (2014) and Some People Talk About Violence (2016)—but it soon became clear that this darkness would be literal as well as figurative.
A Girl in School Uniform (Walks into a Bar) is set in a world much like ours—possibly in the near-future, but this is never made explicit—where blackouts are a common part of everyday life. A teenage schoolgirl, Steph (Bryony Davies), walks into a bar looking for her missing friend, Charlotte. The barmaid, Bell (Emma D'Arcy) is evasive and cryptic in her responses, but it's clear that she knows something. And then the lights go out.
What begins as a quasi-detective story with a clear narrative hook soon turns into something more subtle, shifting and introspective. Despite being scary at first, the blackouts have a liberating effect on the two women, permitting them to express their inner thoughts and desires, including fantasies of retributive violence against men. At one point, Steph gleefully describes pulling out a man's heart like a martial arts expert. The darkness also creates a space where the characters can indulge in role-play—swapping parts and acting out a variety of different scenarios.
The threat of male violence hangs over the play from beginning to end. Although Raczka never makes the details of Charlotte's fate explicit, it seems safe to assume that she came to a grisly end after she encountered a man in the dark.
A Girl in School Uniform is a beguilingly strange new play that rewards close attention and imaginative engagement. At times, its vision of nocturnal dread reminded me of Alistair MacDowall's excellent play Pomona (2014) and Mike Leigh's masterpiece Naked (1993). That being said, there were a few points where the play's ambiguity became slightly frustrating and I longed for a few breadcrumbs of concrete information about the world outside the bar.
The two actors deliver compelling performances. Emma D'Arcy brings a pleasing world-weariness to the part of Bell, and Bryony Davies makes a believably stubborn teenager. Both cope well with the physical demands of the piece; acting in the dark can't be easy.
Ali Pidsley—who directed both of Raczka's previous works—deserves praise for his energetic staging here. However, I wasn't too keen on his decision to move the action from the stage to other parts of the studio, because this violated the play's spatial logic and undermined the claustrophobic atmosphere that had been established earlier. It also meant that some of the play's revelations passed me by because I couldn't quite see or hear what was going on.
Despite these minor criticisms, I was highly impressed by A Girl in School Uniform, and it has been twisting and turning in my brain since I watched it.
Reviewer: James Ballands