This retro-suburban coming-of-age dreamscape was so charming in its premiere production at Adelaide Festival 2014 that it was adapted for screen. Released in 2016, it has been nominated for an impressive seven AACTA awards. The film is lovely, but on stage the story thrums with an additional layer of magic.
It’s the work of Adelaide-based company Windmill Performing Arts, writer Matthew Whittet (who wrote Belvoir’s 2015 age-swapping play Seventeen) and director Rosemary Myers. (Their previous collaboration, School Dance, was at STC in 2012.) Seen in the context of the film, the play now seems like a love letter to the freedom of the stage; the production is highly imaginative in a way that, on film, becomes literal. How better to represent a subconscious fear than to have it rise out of the wallpaper, pattern and all, and gallop towards you?
Those fears belong to painfully introverted Greta (Ellen Steele). She’s hurtling towards her fifteenth birthday and, to her horror, her mother (Amber McMahon) has invited Greta’s whole school to a birthday party that Greta doesn’t want. She turns to her father (Matthew Whittet) for help, but he sputters when he’s outside his regular purview – dad jokes – and so Greta relents.
The party is a nightmare – even Greta’s best friend Elliott (Dylan Young) is no comfort – and it’s not long before the night melts into something entirely different. Despite some sage advice from her Serge Gainsbourg-loving sister Genevieve (Sheridan Harbridge), Greta breaks her cardinal rule and falls asleep at her own party. Before long she’s on a quest to retrieve her stolen music box from the hands of a monster, with goblins, ferocious dogs, and an ice queen standing in her way.
Girl Asleep explores, with gentle humour and great empathy, the pain of mid-adolescence. The fantastic creatures Greta must battle to recover the song that brings her solace bear more than a passing resemblance to her family and schoolmates; the small and superlative cast of six play 15 characters, and their performances are keenly-observed comic archetypes sketched with love. There’s dance, physical comedy, and a family just trying to do their best. It’s hard not to fall for this world.
Jonathan Oxlade’s design for the story’s ’70s setting is a wonderfully tragic, highly comic force. His costumes are cleverly era-appropriate and Greta’s family home – the backdrop upon which all drama plays out – is amazingly, stubbornly tacky. It’s the perfect setting for a comedy that elicits a kind of nostalgic embarrassment, and fondness, for earlier times; while you’re remembering the time your home or wardrobe looked like that, you can also tap into that younger you – the one who was almost 15 and facing inner quests of their own.
Most importantly, Girl Asleep is a play that validates the emotions and experience of teenage girlhood. The play crafts Greta’s journey so that she can recognise her own needs and identify them, and then it allows her the agency and authority to act on those needs and that identity. Greta is torn between childhood and adulthood, facing the cruelties and complexities of growing up, unmoored and overwhelmed. But Greta is also brave, and resourceful, and capable of great things.
In a world that often doesn’t take women, especially young women, seriously, this play feels like necessary viewing. Send every girl you know.