A girl walks into a bar... and it’s not a joke
A review of A Girl in School Uniform (Walks Into a Bar) by Madhurima Ray
The Orfield Laboratories in Minnesota is the world’s quietest room. No sound from the outside world is allowed in. It’s so quiet, you can hear your own heartbeat, your own blood flowing and your bones grinding. It’s so quiet, the silence will gradually turn into an intolerable ringing in your ears.
It’s so quiet, no one’s been able to last more than 55 minutes in its oppressive silence.
What the Orfield Laboratories does with silence, Lulu Raczka’s A Girl in School Uniform (Walks into a Bar) aims to do with darkness. Raczka explores an all-encompassing, stifling, pervasive darkness, both in its physical form, and in the play’s subject matter, to create a world plagued by unexplained blackouts, during which girls and women go missing.
It’s this world that the Dubai Drama Group recreated at The Junction as part of their spring theatre season. Helmed by Kirin Hilliar, the production featured Lauren Noble as the morally grey bartender Bell, and Roya Hashemi as Steph, the titular character of the play.
Even before the doors to the theatre opened, the scene was set for an experience quite different from anything else that had been staged there before. The benches outside, usually occupied by people chatting about the week that was or making plans for the weekend to come, were filled with flyers featuring pictures of women who have gone missing. Madeleine McCann looked up from the bench, as did many, many like her. When the audience walked in, these faces stared back from the seats of the theatre. Each flyer had a QR code that told each victim’s story and linked to helplines, making sure they wouldn’t be reduced to being just a great PR move for the evening.
Suitably unsettled before I had even settled into my seat, I knew this would be a play most audience members, including myself, would have very strong feelings about. (I wasn’t wrong, but those feelings weren’t quite what I was expecting, more on that later!)
It’s hard to condense a plot like this into a small paragraph, but here’s what’s at the heart of the story. Bell runs a seedy bar in the ‘wrong’ side of a dystopian city where girls disappear during blackouts, and usually turn up dead. One such girl is Charlie, whose final steps her friend Steph traces to Bell’s bar. Steph walks in looking for answers that she hopes will lead her to Charlie. What happens over the course of this play is a twisty, turny chain of events that hides more than it reveals, fabricates more than it simplifies, winding between what’s real and what’s not and creating many make-believe worlds within the world that it’s set in. This refusal to adhere to the traditional beginning-middle-end format makes Lulu Raczka’s storytelling unique. But frustrating, too.
Let’s take Bell, for example. She’s inherently unlikeable. That’s not the problem though. She has been written as brusque and bitter, the perfect foil to Steph’s initial Bambi-eyedness. But the trouble is, her character doesn’t really progress to anything more than that. Bigger peaks and troughs would have been great; more vulnerability would have been even better.
What really worked though, was Lauren’s spunky, spirited performance. She committed 100% to her character, right down to the roots of her acid-pink hair, dyed especially for the show. Her take on Bell is a sympathetic one: “Bell is a very complex character. My natural inclination during rehearsals was to call her a bit of a d*****! But there’s a sense that she has been badly damaged by the world, and that has made her a bitter human being. That’s why she’s so very vindictive and manipulative.” Lauren brought Bell to life with effortless style, and without missing a single beat. But, to know the reason behind why Bell is the way she is would have been satisfying. There were also a few scenes in the play where Bell’s character was overwhelmingly protective of Steph, where she acted as a sort of maternal figure teaching the ways of this world to a younger generation of women. I just wish the writer had devoted a bit more time to this character. Because, when it was time for the big reveal (spoiler alert: the missing Charlie is Bell’s younger sister), I would have felt a lot more sympathetic than I did in that moment.
Lulu Raczka did, however, take an excellent call on not writing in a lot of stage direction. A play as ambiguous as this one should have room to fit the director’s interpretation.
Kirin’s personal touches to the play were some of my favourite parts of the experience. Every time a blackout occurred, Bell’s bar, her place of refuge, lit up in the same shade of pink as her hair. The design team’s choice to go with this unapologetically feminine colour was a brilliant one; it stood out powerfully in a world where masculinity is painted in its darkest tones.
The smart lighting didn’t end there. “I wanted to incorporate some interesting torch work,” says Kirin. And she succeeded – the torch acted as a tool of both direction and misdirection, simultaneously guiding and confusing the audience as to where they were supposed to be looking in a theatre filled with darkness. The movement around the stage was fluid. (Here too, Lulu Raczka left it up to the director). The characters kept their distance, came together, huddled close, sprang apart and reunited on repeat as the story progressed. Kirin and Lauren also worked closely together on what turned out to be a particularly enjoyable part of the evening. What was a series of clinical stage directions in the script became a lovely musically charged montage of Bell drinking alone in her empty bar while waiting for Steph to come back; each shot of whiskey punctuated by a moody, grungy track and a brief blackout.
A wonderful scene had Lauren and Roya seated on the floor with their backs to the bar, while the former chided the schoolgirl as she rocked back and forth anxiously, counting numbers under her breath to cope with the rising fear of the unknown. This could have easily been overplayed, but Kirin’s choice of reigning in her actresses amplified the tension of the scene. In fact, Roya’s whole performance was restrained, and therefore, very believable. The straw boater hat jammed over her curls amplified her character’s naivety, as did the ghost of a lisp in her voice. But as the play continued, and especially during its more dramatic moments, she didn’t take the amateur’s easy, shouty, screechy way out. The panic in her voice, the frustration with the situation she chose to be in, her dogged determination to find out the truth and her bravery in coming to terms with the deaths surrounding her – they were all played with a maturity much beyond her 15 years. Roya is one to watch.
I said earlier that I found Lulu Raczka’s storytelling frustrating. I struggled with the writer’s refusal to commit to the world she’d set her play in, her characters’ backstories and their ultimate fates. There was a chillingly fantastic moment where we heard chains rattling and falling outside the bar – signifying that the boundary between this safe space and the outside world had been breached by a faceless intruder.
What happened after that? Nothing.
It was hard to be led around in circles, only to always end up at the same place where we started: in the dark. As the lights went out for one last time, no one in the audience had answers. What happened to Charlie? Who was responsible for the abductions? Did Bell know a lot more than she let on? Did Steph and Bell ultimately find a way out? Why did the writer choose an open ending that I, frankly, thought was irritating?