If teen-fangirl spirit had a smell, it would be the effervescent sparkle of theatrical fog machines and neon pink glitter, mixed with a sprinkle of high school toilets and a heady rush of youthfully charged chemical love. Walking into the Sydney Opera House’s fresh production of the hit pop-musical Fangirls, this smell hits you with the concrete weight of an unrequited internet crush. Hard, fast, and painfully, perfectly overwhelming.
On paper, Fangirls is easy to overlook. A poptastic original Aussie musical about three teenage girls who are maniacally obsessed with a boyband’s adolescent British lead with perfect hair and a dazzling cosmetic smile (a thinly veiled nod to Harry Styles) doesn’t sound like something that everyone might want to rush out and see. But when I say (to be fair, as a former fangirl) that this musical made me feel reborn, I am not being dramatic. This production made me feel, as the main gals squeal repeatedly – like, literally dead. In the most incredible and sparkly way possible.
Written and created by award-winning Australian songwriter, screenwriter and playwright Yve Blake and directed by Paige Rattray (Death of a Salesman, Triple X), this insane extravaganza of pop-stars and the teen girls (and boys, and others) who love them has been a hit everywhere since its release in 2019. A Belvoir and Queensland Theatre co-production in association with Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP), Fangirls returned in 2021 for a national tour. Now, in 2022, the Sydney Opera House has given it a facelift, with a snazzy multidimensional set and a fresh starry-eyed young cast led by Manali Datar, who plays top 14-year-old fangirl Edna, and who has also appeared in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as Rose Granger-Weasley. The magical Datar is joined by a diverse young Aussie cast, who are each individually zinging with life and limitless possibilities, bringing a delicious variety of gender identities, body types and nationalities to the Drama Theatre’s main stage.
Fangirls is a seriously multilayered affair. Starting off with Edna, the lonely teenage daughter of an overworked single mother, the show follows the borderline medical obsession that Edna and her two polarising best mates Jules and Bri share for Harry, the lead singer of True Connection – the British boyband whom they see as the hot boy-shaped answer to all their wildest dreams and gnarliest problems. Rich with fanfiction, early lust, zombie wars and a freaky twist that you will absolutely not see coming, this show stays grounded in 21st-century reality by drawing impeccable parallels between the fictional True Connection and the real One Direction – with the hysterics of the latter's fandom spared no neon-hued, screamy detail.
As someone who was once a fangirl of said band in the early 2010s, this show rings particularly true to me for the gravity it bestows on young women like my not-so-distant past self, whose obsession with a group of dewy-skinned teenage boys from the UK knew no bounds. Just as my friends and I once huddled in our school toilets, tearfully asking my mum if she had managed to score us three gold tickets to the biggest show of the season – nay, OUR LIVES – the cast of Fangirls do the same. Inconsolable sobbing, not being able to eat, to sleep, to think about anything other than the object of your affection who only exists on the internet (and if you’re willing to fork out $180, a custom-printed sheet set), are the hallmarks of a very particular teenage experience that has been happening since the Beatles, but has yet (until now) been represented as anything other than a freaky show of pathetic girly hysteria. Fangirls turns this on its head.
Edna and her friends (played by Milo Hartill and Tonieka Del Rosario) are delightfully convincing as a gaggle of troubled 14-year-olds. Meanwhile Blake Appelqvist (Hayes Theatre Co’s Bonnie & Clyde) masters ‘boyband demigod’ superbly well as 18-year-old Harry, all the way from their artisanal hair flips to their ability to pull off calling someone four years younger than them “love” unironically.
The show employs the transformative magic of pop ballads as its core engine, with an original score written entirely by Yve Blake. Classic boyband-esque lyrics – including the line “your hair is like summer, your eyes are the truth” – are combined with a moment in the show where the audience is invited to attend a coveted stadium concert, with everyone singing and waving their phone lights together in an electric kind of unity.
Beneath the puff and sparkly pizazz of this show lies a vitally important heart. It deals with the exquisite pain of being a teenager (particularly, but not limited to, a teenage girl), of having little agency and lesser respect from the world around you. Of latching onto community (whether that be represented by a peachy-faced British singer, or not) as a means of finding a sense of yourself in the maelstrom of a blossoming new life. The colossal screen behind the actors plays video montages of hundreds of fellow teens singing in chorus on their laptop webcams, all from the oases of their individual bedrooms, a group of desperate hearts on the wild web looking for a sense of connection that they can’t find anywhere else.
We see this when Edna sings mournfully about her misunderstood place in the fandom: “If it’s only pretend, then why is it the only place that I’m not pretending?”
This show brings a remarkably unspoken social truth to the surface: teenage girls deserve respect for what they love, even if you don’t love the same things they do.
Virginia Woolf said in a Room of One’s Own that in our society “masculine values prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’.” The same goes, 100 years on, for boybands. We see this disparity repeatedly in Fangirls (albeit, veiled in sequins), nailed down when the girls’ parents refuse to buy them tickets to go see the band perform. When the boisterous Jules asks the meek Bri why her dad doesn’t get them all tickets because he takes her brother to the footy every week, Bri looks down and replies: “He says it’s different.”
If anything, Fangirls shows us that it is not different. Growing up is bloody hard, and if you can find a comfortable place to momentarily place all your undefined desires for yourself and your future, whilst having a fabulous time in a flower crown in the process, whose right is it to stop you?
This show is like taking a deep swan dive into the hot-pink fluorescence of youth, with it leaving everyone who is lucky enough to see it fresh with a new-found buoyancy around love, the continued existence of their younger selves, and the utter perfection of allowing yourself to be yourself – whether you’re into a boyband or not.
From over here in the stands, this fangirl approves.
Fangirls plays at the Sydney Opera House until September 4, 2022.