Such clever, expensive racehorses
Under bright lights and perched on hard-backed, straight-A classroom chairs, three young women are poised like eager greyhounds, waiting for the rabbit to be released. Each one holds the key to a future in her lap, cased in an innocuous brown envelope. Have they been accepted to Oxbridge, or rejected? And if they’ve got the go-ahead, are they attractive enough, slim enough, sporty or edgy or rich enough, to succeed there? These are ‘first world problems’, and lead actress-cum-writer Milly Thomas’ eponymous new play is chock-a-block with ‘em.
At the forefront of this ambitious project is the often-repeated mantra that “we cost too much”: these girls have been primed from birth for success: by their parents, by their school and, of course, by each other. Fear not, this isn’t a play about Oxford but a more cleverly-doctored comment on the pedestals upon which too many western women are placed, and their consequent struggle to remain upright. Hebe, balancing on this precipice of not-quite-girl, not-quite-woman, is content to bubble away at surface level (occasionally spitting), all-too aware of the world’s cynicism and dog-eat-dog-ness before she’s even out of her teens. Thomas treads the line between teen bravado and adolescent vulnerability particularly well, and the script crackles with wonderfully sharp, bitchy one-liners.
There’s a linear plot to A First World Problem, but the production works just as well as a series of sketches – glimpses into the lives of overachieving, privileged young women. Hebe is constantly referred to as “such a clever girl”, yet misses the irony as she rips into others’ lack of class whilst spitting undigested Mars Bars into a plastic bag (she’s “fat for her bracket”, you see). Kate Craggs captures the misty-eyed superficiality of the school’s head teacher credibly, before launching back to pillow-case-fighting schoolgirl and Hebe’s terrible token boyfriend Hugo. Molly Vevers similarly swings between the girls’ punching bag friend Amelia and the flailing, confused character of their history teacher.
Audience reactions will change each night of the show’s run, yet it’s always a good sign to hear a mixture of hushed silence in the more alarming sexual confessions, drug-chat and excruciating binge-drinking scenes. A taut, fantastically ironic soundtrack of porn clips beside jaunty, jingle-like indifference adds to the sense that Thomas has thought carefully about the tightrope-like nature of her characters’ lives, each on the brink of her own success or ruin. Designer Frankie Bradshaw has created a set just waiting for the energy of its actors to throw off the inquisitorial lights and destroy it all.
Running as it does without an interval, A First World Problem would have benefited from some judicious editing in its second half, which runs over previously-covered ground for just a few minutes too long. Yet despite this, the energy is never dimmed and the sense of impending catastrophe only serves to makes its final, reflective scene that much more poignant. Director Holly Race Roughan’s cast have broken a leg – this is a fascinating production. Of course, when great, trained racehorses break legs, we shoot them. If you don’t fulfil that highest rung of potential and wring yourself out like the tired, over-invested sponge that you are, there are no trophies. A sad truth that must be outed – which is, of course, the job of really great theatre.
Watch Theatre 503′s YouTube trailer: