Fangirls - Book, Music & Lyrics by Yve Blake. Directed by Paige Rattray.
Belvoir St Theatre - A co-production with Queensland Theatre and Brisbane Festival, in association with Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP)
At Seymour Centre, University of Sydney, 30 January - 20 February 2021. Also at
Canberra Playhouse 24-28 March 2021.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Aydan (Harry); Danielle Barnes; Chika Ikogwe (Jules); Shubshri Kandiah (Brianna); Ayesha Madon (Lily); James Majoos (Saltypringl); Sharon Millerchip (Mother); Karis Oka (Edna); Tomáš Kant or Shannen Alyce Quan
Book, Music & Lyrics Yve Blake
Director Paige Rattray
Original Music Director / Vocal Arranger Alice Chance
Music Producer / Sound Designer David Muratore
Dramaturg Jonathan Ware
Music Director / Vocal Arranger Zara Stanton
Set, Video Content and Costume Designer David Fleischer
Video Content Design and Production Justin Harrison
Lighting Designer Emma Valente
Choreographer Leonard Mickelo
Sound Designer Michael Waters
Associate Director: Carissa Licciardello
Associate Choreographer: Sharon Millerchip
Lighting Realiser: Renae Kenward
Stage Manager: Khym Scott
Assistant Stage Manager: Julia Orlando
Front of House Engineer: Matthew Erskine
Head Electrician: Steve Hendy
Technical Coordinator: Tom Houghton
My dictum has long been, for new plays and new productions of plays I already know, to avoid reading about them before I review. Having missed Fangirls’ first runs in Brisbane and Sydney in late 2019, fortunately Covid confusion took over. So when Belvoir announced its success and another season to begin 2021, I still knew little while checking in the Service NSW QR Code at the Seymour Centre yesterday.
What I love about theatre is being surprised. Fangirls turned out to be a great and very rewarding surprise.
Of course, if you follow my dictum, you should at this point stop reading. Just go and see for yourself. Then you might like to read my thoughts to see if you agree.
Booking at Belvoir, I couldn’t miss the basic info:
“Edna’s fourteen and is head over heels in love with Harry- he’s beautiful, talented, perfect, but there’s just one problem: he’s also the star of the world’s biggest boyband. Getting Harry’s attention might seem impossible, but there’s nothing that Edna won’t do to prove to Harry that she’s the one.
Yve Blake’s uproarious musical makes its much-anticipated return.”
Is this the show for me, I wondered, now I’m an octogenarian? Surprise, surprise. There’s much more than mere fun – the focus word in other publicity I had accidentally skimmed – in this seriously funny play.
When we became the pop-star show audience, (nearly everyone decades younger than me), and everyone did a Mexican wave with their phones lit up (I’d switched mine off, of course, as normal theatre convention requires), I began to think about the nature of theatrical illusion.
As the story developed, and Act I ended with a brief appearance on stage of a tied-up Harry, I was suddenly reminded of events in the real history of fandom.
In this story, Edna is from a single-parent family. Her mother has to work, often long hours, and tries to provide everything her intellectual daughter needs. Perhaps Edna falls in love with the publicity image of Harry, though she can’t afford to go to his concerts, because she has lost her father-figure. We could get into Freudian psychology at this point, but this is not raised in this script.
However, Edna has won a scholarship which means she can continue in high school and meet up with another intellectual, a gay guy known as Saltypringl. He becomes her adviser as she writes her story of how she will meet Harry; he will return her love when he looks into her eyes; and she will persuade him to ‘run’ with her to escape the pressure of fandom. How can she put her story into practice, is her question to Salty.
What if, though, she can’t persuade Harry to run with her? Salty takes a while to think things through, and at last says the only answer would be to kill him. Where the Fangirls script has been essentially an amusing satire of fourteen-year-old girls’ behaviour to this point, in the second half the play becomes a farce.
Edna can’t get to the concert, but she organises the kidnapping of Harry after the show; ties him up in her bedroom; tries to persuade him to run from the pressures of the fan culture; and ends up more or less accidentally killing him, in company with her two (less intellectual) girl friends. On their suggestion and with her mother’s help, the body is taken ‘to the woods’. Being a farce, in the very end we find that the girls were not jailed because the court could not believe that a girl could have done the kidnapping. That is, it is implied that girls are not expected to be able to do things like that – only men can.
And so, Fangirls turns into an unexpected study of the destructive emotional and persuasive effects of popular fandom, while maintaining a political stance in favour of gender equality. At the end last night the audience – with a clear majority of young women – was still laughing uproariously and cheering the performers and the show for what it meant to them.
The cheering was absolutely justified for another surprise for me. As a musical, the singing, dancing and acting was top quality; but the stunningly successful integration of the internet culture into the audio-visual design made this show relevant to a modern young audience far beyond anything I could have imagined.
I may be 80; I may have seen earlier clunky attempts to use live digital effects which distract and undermine the work of the actors; I may have even seen very successful use of live camera work such as in Sydney Theatre Company’s Suddenly Last Summer; and in 2020 The Wharf Revue’s Good Night and Good Luck used pre-recorded video very effectively for getting the message across. But Fangirls builds the video, sound and music into the live singing, acting and dancing – including scene changes and props – so well that this show becomes ‘total theatre’ of a most modern kind.
And what was it about the real history of the pressures of fandom that came to my mind as Harry’s head dropped forward in death? By the late 1960s the Beatles had become disillusioned with the effects of fandom, and I remember the hordes of fourteen-year-old girls’ extreme emotional reactions which you can see in many video records, including some used in Fangirls so I have read. But move on to the 1980s and read this about John Lennon’s death:
Mark David Chapman: From Drugs to Jesus
Chapman came to see himself as a real-life Holden Caulfield. He even told his wife he wanted to change his name to Holden Caulfield and would rage about the phoniness of people and of celebrities in particular.
Hatred of John Lennon
In October of 1980, Esquire magazine published a profile on John Lennon, which portrayed the former Beatle as a drug-addled millionaire recluse who had lost touch with his fans and his music. Chapman read the article with increasing anger and came to see Lennon as the ultimate hypocrite and a “phony” of the very type described in Salinger’s novel.
He began reading everything he could about John Lennon, even making tapes of Beatles’ songs, which he would play over and over for his wife, changing the tapes’ speed and direction. He would listen to them while sitting nude in the dark, chanting, “John Lennon, I’m going to kill you, you phony bastard!”
When Chapman discovered Lennon was planning to release a new album—his first in five years—his mind was made up. He would fly to New York City and shoot the singer.
My thinking was certainly a great surprise, with a new sense of dread, thanks to Fangirls.
|The cast of Fangirls
Photo: Brett Boardman