Review: Girls, Soho Theatre – Sobering and Timely

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#BringBackOurGirls was embarrassing. Slacktivism at its best. On the off chance that a violent terrorist group may not pay too much attention to a Twitter hashtag campaign, it didn’t seem like anyone had a back-up plan. And they didn’t. For today, almost two and a half years after over 200 girls were abducted in Nigeria by Boko Haram, we have no idea where the vast majority of these girls are. Or if they are even alive.

Boko Haram and Nigeria are never mentioned explicitly in Girls, this award-winning play from Theresa Ikoko, but the 2014 abduction of the 276 schoolgirls in Borno State is clearly the source of inspiration here. And the result is a powerful, sobering, realistic exploration of what happens to girls when they are abducted, and their fate after the attention of Western society and media has waned.

The only characters in this play are Haleema (Anita-Joy Uwajeh), Ruhab, (Yvette Boakye), and Tisana (Abiola Ogunbiyi). Three young African girls, childhood friends, who are being held in captivity. Sometimes they’re in a tent, sometimes a sealed room. Or a bunker, perhaps? We are never told and as the scenes flit past, the location keeps changing. These young girls are always on the move, always being transported and exchanged.

But what we do know for sure is that they were kidnapped, and relatively recently too, for they are still conflicted and unsure. And still expecting the UN, the US or, indeed, any army at all to come on in at any point and rescue them.

girls-by-theresa-ikoko_credit-creative-nation

At times this production from director Elayce Ismail is appropriately harrowing, at other times it is witty and uplifting. The girls work hard to hold on to their memories, to grip on to their friendship to keep them sane. But they are also young and still can’t quite get their heads around what has happened. They tease and play, laugh and mock. But also mourn and fear. Their conversations float between harrowing last glimpses of their family members hiding in bushes as their villages were attacked and burned, to Pop Idol and reality show fantasises.

But eventually the shadow of reality consumes them, forcing them to become adults way before their time, and demanding they make life-changing decisions about their principles and their future.

The three performances are excellent, each fleshing out their character. And three is the magic number here, for not only does it allow us to enjoy the intimacy and close bonds between these young girls, but it also demonstrates the three options available to all those in captivity: optimism and the fantasy of rescue, pessimism and plans for escape, or the terrible third – collaboration and Stockholm-syndrome sympathy.

Men are never visible but their presence is always felt, always hinted at, and their violence eventually pierces the protective bubble these three girls have created around themselves.

Perhaps the climax is a little overthought – an attempt made to make a more innovative, challenging finale when a simpler one would have been just as powerful. But nevertheless the story ends just as it should. For, as is ruefully observed by one of the characters on stage, “This world is not for girls.”

Indeed it is not. As Theresa Ikoko intimates in this play, these girls are forgotten, probably lost for good. The will is just not there to find them, to care enough to fight for their future. This is a critical subject matter excellently dramatised. And you come out feeling dutifully embarrassed that there is nothing you can do – or will do – to change this story which will continue to be repeated again and again and again for girls all over the world.

Soho Theatre, London to October 29, 2016

All images by Creative Nation.

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