Dennis Kelly's new play is a whirlwind monologue starring Carey Mulligan
If Carey Mulligan fancied a second career as a stand-up comedian she’d totally nail it. Dennis Kelly’s new play is a perfect vehicle for her compelling mix of composure, nervy energy and deadpan wit. It’s dominated by scenes where she talks straight out to the audience. About bad sex, the shitness of Paris. Normal things. Then, a life starts to take shape. She’s a working class woman who barrels her way into a film industry that's stitched up by Pony Club graduates, intoxicated by her discovery of the power of confidence. She bags a husband who seems perfect, ambitious and supportive, and has the obligatory two kids.
Her autobiographical monologues are broken up by gentler, but unromanticised scenes, where she plays with her invisible children. Kelly wrote ‘Matilda’ and it just about shows here, as she hilariously tries to handle her precocious daughter, an architectural savant who’s trying to craft The Shard from mud. And her son, who wants to smash everything up.
These wry roleplays gain new weight as Kelly’s play slips from portrait to polemic, exploring the testosterone-fuelled destructive impulses that wreak havoc on trading floors as well as kitchen floors. It reminded me, oddly, of ‘2071’ - another Royal Court solo show, where scientist Chris Rapley took to the stage to explore the impact and inevitability of climate change in unarguable style. ‘Girls & Boys’ puts us back on that iceberg, but what’s wearing away under our feet isn’t the global ecology, it’s the quiet, comforting safety of the family unit.
When it's not being hilarious, this performance can feel like a hundred wildly persuasive opinion pieces mashed together and formed into an uncannily coherent whole. Early on, there's an anecdote about a balding man elaborately getting one over on two snotty supermodels that feels precision engineered to get blokes onside for the points on gender that follow. As its analysis deepens (Mulligan's character makes documentaries, she knows how to present an argument) I found its view of gender weirdly reductive, a bit biological - can we really pin all mankind’s problems on a little extra testosterone? But frustrating as I sometimes found it, I also found telling lines floating in my head for days afterwards.
Lyndsey Turner’s production is a knock-out, too: Es Devlin’s set-design is all uncompromising ice blue, like the woman it swirls around can only dredge up the painful outlines of her former life, not the colours. It transitions, fast, from kitchen to street to void, with a kind of unstoppable power that mirrors Kelly’s uncompromising text, and Mulligan’s equally uncompromising delivery.
One woman shows aren’t exactly unusual but this - a Hollywood megastar holding her own in an experimental but somehow also massively crowdpleasing solo show - this is pretty rare. Mulligan’s unshaking, still commitment to her performance feels like a kind of activism. Each stressed word is telling you that this stuff is real, it matters, and she's deploying every drop of charisma to make you listen.