School Girls, Lyric Hammersmith, 2023
Photo: Manuel Harlan
  • Theatre, Drama
  • Recommended


School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play

4 out of 5 stars

Jocelyn Bioh’s satire about cliquey goings-on at a Ghanaian girls’ school is sharp and affecting


Time Out says

Playwright Jocelyn Bioh isn't the first to be fascinated by the ugliness behind beauty pageants: the sweat under the satin, the casual cruelties dropping from those lipsticked mouths. But her hilarious, biting comedy ‘School Girls’ goes further than the likes of ‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’ by carefully showing how white-run institution Miss World insidiously poisons a group of Ghanian teenagers, all desperate for a crown that's firmly out of reach.

Monique Touko’s lively staging is bright and heightened without losing sight of the humanity of these girls. Paulina (Tara Tijani) is the terrifying queen bee of a boarding school clique, on a perpetual diet that outlaws both interpersonal and dietary sweetness. When she confiscates a bread roll from shy, chubby Nana (Jadesola Odunjo) as they prepare their Miss Ghana auditions, there are audience gasps, and when Nana finally stands up for herself, it feels like every ex-teenager in the audience is living and breathing through her.

The arrival of new girl Ericka (Anna Shaffer) is a threat to Paulina's authority: the other girls admire her lighter skin and American clothes, and feast on chocolate from her wealthy father's cocoa factory. Touko’s staging charts the subtly shifting loyalties here, as the girls gradually move from Paulina’s lunchroom table to Ericka’s, leaning over to her, drunk on teenage adulation. Pageant recruiter Eloise (Deborah Alli) isn't immune, either: ‘we are looking for girls who fall on the other end of the African skin spectrum,’ she tells headmistress Francis (Alison A Addo) when she makes a case for her darker-skinned pupils.

‘School Girls’ is bursting with sharply funny lines and precision-engineered setpieces: the scene when the gang performs a shambolic Whitney Houston vocal number in puffy ’80s gowns is a masterpiece of ‘Mean Girls’-style teenage chaos. But there’s a bleakness to it, too, as it shows the pain of these girls and woman as they sacrifice themselves for a Western narrative of beauty that they know, deep down, will never embrace them.

Bioh’s play is so good at reeling you in with broad, almost soap opera levels of drama and hilarity, without quite doing this pain justice. The girls air their trauma in a way that feels a little formulaic, and the ending lands too fast for its impact to be felt. Still, the cast here creates an atmosphere and a chemistry that’s completely infectious, turning the whole audience into hyped-up, emotional, troubled teenage girls along with them. 


£15-£42. Runs 1hr 20min
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