Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Review: 'A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar)' at the New Diorama, 6th February 2018

A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar) reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

It's the kind of darkness where you can't see your hand in front of your face. The kind where your pupils dilate to saucers, hungry for the slightest stray photon. The kind where a muffled rustle conjures up horrible monsters. The kind that envelopes you like a suffocating blanket. It's a bad darkness, and bad things happen in it.

This is Lulu Raczka's A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar), an intensely atmospheric two-hander with as firm a command of light as any play I've ever seen. It's set in a fuzzily defined dystopian Britain ("It's the future, but only slightly"), regularly suffering from blackouts that go way beyond lighting a candle. Trapped within one of these are Steph (Laura Woodward) and Bell (Bryony Davies). 

Bell is a bored bartender, filling the time running a dive bar nobody goes to anymore. She's a spiky Northern goth, with big stompy boots, pink hair extensions and an aggressive, forthright sexuality to her. All that makes her the opposite of schoolgirl Steph, who's in a garish pink and mustard uniform, pigtails and straw boater, all perky adolescent awkwardness and naivety. Steph is searching for her friend Charlotte, who has disappeared in a recent blackout. Bell knows something, but she isn't about the spill the beans to just anyone.

The situation adds up to a combative back and forth: the disparate pair clashing as they gradually get to know one another, growing closer as the darkness becomes ever more claustrophobic.

One of the scripts cleverest aspects is how much it leaves unexplained. The dystopia is only ever explained in generalities ("with things they way they are..."), leaving it up to the audience to imagine what could have gone so wrong with society to get us to this point. That the characters studiously avoid discussing it hints at their collective trauma, yet also allows for the blackouts to be understood in metaphorical terms. 

I interpreted the darkness as a masculine repression of women: a growing ink blot of ignorance that forces women into prescribed gender roles, entraps them in their homes and presents an ever-present threat to their safety. But these two women aren't going to take this sitting down, seizing the lack of light to spin a tale of empowerment and grisly revenge on the men who've wronged them. It's fantasy, yet when it's explained so vividly in the pitch black you cannot help visualise every detail.

All that's supported by consistently smart stagecraft. Everyone here deserves kudos, but particularly Lizzy Leech's design, Kieran Lucas' sound design and Peter Small's lighting design. Ali Pidsley's direction weaves these elements together beautifully: the soundscape mirroring the crack and popping of the fluorescent lights, or the organic squish and tangy smell of the shredded rubber on the floor. It makes for an oppressive, unfriendly dramatic space, the traverse staging giving the actors no place to hide except darkness.

A Girl In School Uniform is 80 minutes of uneasiness punctuated by comedy and genuinely creepy horror - a genuinely compelling and memorable night at the theatre. It also proves how much can be achieved on a (presumably) limited budget by applying intelligence, talent and creativity.

A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar) is at the New Diorama Theatre until 17 February. Tickets here.

Production photo by Graham Michael.

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