My love for both Dennis Kelly and Carey Mulligan – possibly equal in measure – meant I approached this production with the cool trepidation all reasonably self-aware fangirls should channel: don’t be biased, remain objective and neither scream nor cry. I just about managed it.
Girls and Boys is brilliant because it’s such a precious gift for each party – Mulligan gets a beautifully fulsome character, approaching three-dimensional on the page. Kelly gets to see his writing brought to life by a supremely talented actor who holds the audience in the palm of her hand over 90 minutes, single-handedly. The tension ratchets and subsides as opposed to one steady climb, and you wonder who could do it as well as Mulligan. She moves our unnamed protagonist through expert comic timing to barely suppressed pain and back again without missing a beat.
We begin at the beginning – of a relationship forged in the tedium of an Easyjet flight queue (‘I have to say I took an instant dislike to the man’), followed in the natural order by bed-cracking sex and ‘insane’ love (‘if you haven’t felt like that at least one time then break up with your partner immediately. Go home, jack them in, do not waste this.’)
There are shadows, even in the good times – signs that an unravelling is on the cards, and when it comes it’s like a punch. The undulating drama benefits from Lyndsey Turner’s clear-eyed direction, and Es Devlin’s set is less a backdrop than a projection – part TV set, part washed-out memory.
Mulligan’s character is an arch storyteller, and more than that, an artfully written, wholly believable, erudite and witty woman. A female character constructed by a male writer, who roots the narrative of the play deeply in the psychology of unfettered masculinity and all its attendant harms and contortions (excuse me while I throw off my self-imposed equanimity to praise Dennis Kelly again, but he really is something).
Mulligan made her acting debut at the Royal Court in 2004 in Forty Winks, where she was described variously as ‘good’ and ‘impressive’. Fourteen years later and she’s back to give one of the most commanding performances you’re likely to see on a London stage in 2018 – please make sure you don’t miss it.
Reviewed by April Delaney
Photo: Marc Brenner