Glee & Me
Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre
Two years on from winning one of the £8,000 judges prizes in the Bruntwood Prize—and opening just as the next prize is announced for 2022—Stuart Slade's play is the second main stage production in the Royal Exchange's reopening season and, like the first (Bloody Elle), is a solo piece featuring a young woman telling us about a life-changing experience.
16-year-old Lola (Liv Hill) is diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a rare brain tumour with an average survival time of 12 to 18 months. The 'Glee' of the title is her nickname for this deadly bunch of rogue cells growing inside her head. With the support of her mum, she goes through surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, knowing that all of this is only delaying the inevitable outcome of her condition—and the play.
However, she has her own plans for what she wants to cram into her last year. She wants to find the meaning of life, and she doesn't just want to lose her virginity but to get all of the sex an average person has in a lifetime into twelve months. For this, she meets Rufus, who seems as inexperienced as her but sweet and willing—but she doesn't tell him about her diagnosis. She also starts posting videos, made with her friend Clem, on social media, until another girl with terminal breast and bone cancer starts stealing her followers.
Inevitably, she starts to have issues with speech and mobility and the doctor who was 'pleased' with her progress a few months ago now talks of palliative care. Despite the subject matter, Lola stays positive and jokey for most of the time, while Hill gives her real human warmth that brings her to life and makes her pleasurable company for an hour and a half.
This is a good story full of interesting ideas, but the writing of the dialogue doesn't always get the most from them. While the character treats most situations with humour, it sometimes looks like it was the writer, not Lola, who couldn't resist going for the obvious gag—not all of them worth going for—that distracts from what she is saying. There are some poignant moments, however: the one that stood out for me was when she was swiping forward in the calendar on her iPad to things she knew she would never see (going to university, her 18th).
Nimmo Ismail's production expands this essentially intimate studio piece to the larger stage on Anna Yates's mustard-coloured set of cushions, carpets and a giant duvet overhead with props hidden in drawers and various stage business. While it is really a continuous monologue, it is divided into scenes in the script—which is on sale at the theatre and doubles as a programme—which are punctuated with Lola jigging along to some pop music while rearranging props, which sometimes interrupts her flow. Finishing with her walking towards a bright light is a bit of a tired old idea, and has meant cutting the final short scene that would have given a more Lola-ish ending.
But the play treats the death of a young person with humour and thoughtfulness and never becomes maudlin, which has to be applauded, in a piece that is endearing due to Hill's wonderful performance.
After its initial run, Glee & Me will continue in rep with The Mountaintop, which opens on the main stage on 25 September.
Reviewer: David Chadderton