Cheap Seats in association with The Royal Exchange
The Studio, Royal Exchange, Manchester
As Becki and Holly, two teenagers bent on tormenting their peers, loomed over the new girl this reviewer squirmed in her seat. Alistair McDowall's portrayal of girlish viciousness was chillingly familiar.
Although McDowall's Plain Jane is set in an exclusive boarding school, the dorm scene with its unmade beds, scattered clothes and posters of the latest teen heartthrobs, could have been performed in any classroom or playground in Britain.
Many women will remember their own Becki or Holly, the girls who made their schooldays a misery, who taunted and teased and found pleasure in bullying. The use of a small dormitory for this theatre of cruelty is a deft device - not only is there no emotional escape for the victims, there is no physical freedom either.
Elisabeth Hopper as Becki inhabits the role of chief tormentor flawlessly. Easily bored, she enjoys scraping away the self-confidence of both Jane and Lisa, her two roommates. Her ability to bring them both to the brink of tears is convincingly brought out, as is the actress' capacity to turn on the charm when it suits her. Holly is played by Caitlin Joseph, who does a fine job as Becki's acolyte, well-practised in the art of bullying. Together they are nastiness personified.
Meanwhile, Sarah Winter in the title role of Jane manages to evoke sympathy as the bullies' target while affording glimpses of why the other girls find her annoying. As the cruelty escalates, she isn't tempted to overplay her role as victim. The result is a performance of quiet intensity. Similarly, Sally Hodgkiss as the girl wanting to do the right thing yet afraid to anger the two bullies succeeds in drawing the audience's compassion while conveying the dilemma of her situation.
As the play progresses towards its climax, the dialogue is littered with bleakly-funny jokes and observations, including laugh-out-loud lines. Jane is like a "listed building" muses Holly as she lies sprawled on Becki's bed. "Why?" demands her friend. "Because you can't get rid of her," Holly replies.
The humour survives in one of the most unsettling final scenes when Becki and Holly set Jane up with a local supermarket worker, Roger. Even now the audience hopes for a happy ending and is initially buoyed by the impression that Roger, ably played by Paul Sockett, is a nice guy who won't take advantage of an underage girl.
Whether Jane succumbs to a 30-year-old's advances or not is for future theatregoers to find out. But when the curtain goes down, the question is not so much whether she should or she shouldn't, but who was the real victim? Was it Jane, naive and easily-led, or Lisa, who tried to be "better" but let her own sense of self-preservation encroach on her good intentions?
McDowall must be applauded for his skilful account of teenage bullying and sexuality. But brevity would have improved his play. The seduction scene needed a cut and this would have benefited the actor playing Roger, whose awkward platitudes and declarations of lust became repetitive and jarring.
Despite this, Plain Jane, the latest production from the award-winning Cheap Seats company, will have left female members of the audience thankful that their schooldays are safely in the past.
"Plain Jane" runs until Saturday 23rd October
Reviewer: Helen Nugent