Sunday, January 15, 2023

Girls and Boys


Girls and Boys by Dennis Kelly (UK).  State Theatre of South Australia at Seymour Centre, Everest Theatre, in Sydney Festival 2023, January 5-15, 2023.
This play was first presented at Royal Court, London (2018); this production for the Adelaide Festival, Odeon Theatre, (February – March 2022); and it will be shown again in Dunstan Theatre, Adelaide in August 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 14, 2023

Director - Mitchell Butel
Set & Costume Designer - Ailsa Paterson
Lighting Designer - Nigel Levings
Composer - Alan John
Sound Designer - Andrew Howard
Assistant Director - Rachel Burke

Performed by Justine Clarke

Sydney actor Justine Clarke makes a quite remarkable lower-class London girl into a story-teller, who begins seeming like a stand-up comedian; develops into a wife, a mother dealing with her strong-minded son and daughter, and a woman becoming a creative successful documentary maker; and ends as a tragic survivor whose own story is true for far too many women the world over.

I have a habit of avoiding reading up on plays new to me, and I recommend this especially for Girls and Boys.  I have already told you too much.  I can certainly tell you how well Justine caught the personality and style in the early scenes that I remember personally from my bringing-up in the very Wood Green in London she makes fun of, along with Paris and Rome.  The prejudices as well as the romance of travel (based apparently on Dennis Kelly’s own experiences) are very English, and works very well as comedy for Australians, according to last night’s audience.

But you may wish to put aside the rest of what I have to say until you have seen the play yourself.  I certainly recommend a trip to Adelaide in August.


Dennis Kelly decided that he would not give his central character a name, intending of course for her to represent all the women who face what she calls – literally – marriage destruction.  In Australia, the play cannot help but remind us of the 2015 Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty, who has taken on such a powerful role in the campaign to prevent family violence since her husband’s murder of their son.

Perhaps Justine Clarke had her example in mind when concluding the play with such a sense of determination that we, these actual ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ in the audience, appreciate the reality that any of us can make assumptions about our close relations that are wrong; that for our own emotional needs we can misinterpret the other’s behaviour.  

In an interview ( shortly before the first production with Carey Mulligan performing, Lyn Gardner reported “There are only two characters in this play: the actor and the audience,” says Kelly. “You risk running the audience out of the play when it gets hard.” The going gets very hard indeed, and anyone who has tickets for the sold-out hit may not want to read any further. As Kelly says: “You can’t talk about the play without giving away what’s going on.” But he thinks we do need to talk about it – and it’s his job to do it.

The point of seeing the play is that, as ‘Justine’ talks directly to us, acts out scenes with her invisible children and husband, talks to herself as we overhear her thinking, often trying to work out what is happening, and why – including as she matures philosophical questions about human relationships and even thoughts about the evolution of power and violence – we ourselves are placed in her kind of situation.  When at last the worst that we can imagine might happen actually does, we are as overwhelmed by the fact that it was as unforeseen by us as it was by ‘Justine’.

The effect is quite extraordinary.  We feel a tremendous sense of respect for ‘Justine’ and her strength in the aftermath of the moment, just as much as we feel respect for Justine in having created the role and held us in her thrall for 110 minutes.

No wonder the whole audience gave Justine Clarke, and ultimately Dennis Kelly and the State Theatre of South Australia team, a genuinely felt standing ovation.  

Justine Clarke in Girls and Boys by Dennis Kelly
Photo: Sam Roberts