Over the years the Royal Court has been a launch pad for some of Britain’s most talented writers, directors, designers and performers, including the formidably talented Carey Mulligan, who at age 19 in 2004 announced herself when she played a dual role in Kevin Elyot’s Forty Winks. She’s the star of David Hare’s TV series Collateral, and is sensational in the Royal Court’s Girls and Boys, a 90-minute monologue by Dennis Kelly.
In it she plays an unnamed woman who tells us in the opening line, “I met my husband in the queue to board an Easy-jet flight, and I have to say I took an instant dislike to the man.” Only after the stranger amusingly gets the better of a pair of attractive models who come on to him in order to jump the queue, she finds herself drawn to him, becomes his wife and then the mother of his two children. Turns out, however, that her initial instincts about him were spot on.
For the first half hour or so you could be forgiven for thinking she’s a stand-up comedian. Occupying centre stage and with a spotlight brightly focused on her svelte figure, she gives us a witty guided tour of some of the events that helped shape her life, the most entertaining being a vivid description of how she talked her way into a TV job as PA to “a development executive’s assistant.”
Interspersed with these searingly honest, laugh-out-loud glimpses of her career are scenes of a more domesticated nature. After a brief blackout, Es Devlin’s initially bare set reveals a bleached-out sitting room-cum-kitchen where our protagonist mimingly interacts with her two unseen young children, Danny and Leanne. Gradually, however, the play’s mood darkens. The chattily entertaining extrovert morphs into a deeply disturbed woman. “I don’t remember exactly when things went wrong,” she tells us. “I just remember suddenly finding myself in it.”
As her career in TV takes off, her husband, whose business is importing antique furniture, hits the skids, so does their marriage. The act of violence that climaxes the play is as shocking as anything ever presented by the Royal Court – including Edward Bond’s Saved back in 1966.
By definition a monologue essentially offers only one point of view, which in this case could be said to render the Mulligan character an unreliable witness. Compelling as it undoubtedly is, just what Kelly’s play is saying about male empowerment and the battle of the sexes remains somewhat vague. The husband’s point of view might have helped.
There is nothing vague, however, about Mulligan’s star turn. This is one hell of a performance by any standards – an astonishing, attention-grabbing tour de force that holds you in thrall from start to finish. Every inflexion, gesture and bat of the eyelid is calibrated for maximum dramatic effect without being overly calculated or self-consciously showy about it.
On par with the performance is Lyndsey Turner’s effective yet unobtrusive direction. If ever there was a serendipitous melding of talents in which the one benefits the other, this is it. Jackpot time at the Royal Court.