The acting is the event in Rebecca Prichard’s “Yard Gal,” a play whose own admirable feistiness is nothing compared to the amazingly bold — and moving — pair of performances that it showcases. Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Amelia Lowdell are as yet unknown, but that can’t remain the case for long. As directed with genuinely touching empathy by Gemma Bodinetz in her most stirring work to date, the Royal Court co-venture marks a high point of Britain’s Clean Break Theater Co., a touring troupe founded in 1979 by two ex-offenders in order to put on stage issues related to women and crime. The real crime, though, will occur if these performances aren’t widely seen: Acting this bracing and fresh is all too rare.
It’s possible that the patois of the play (slangy title included) may be a shade streetwise for some — “We avva license to crub like dis bitch,” goes one sample line. But Jez Butterworth’s ultra-hip “Mojo” found favor in Chicago and New York, and “Yard Gal” is in its distinct way just as savvy and far more accessible. Think of it as the kind of report from the front line that a Spike Lee might script.
One need know nothing about the tensions of London’s inner-city Hackney to follow these two teenagers’ every cocksure strut. The point is that Duncan-Brewster’s Boo and Lowdell’s Marie own the town — or so they think — and by play’s end, they own the audience, as well.
The lamest writing comes at the very beginning, as Prichard toys awkwardly with the fourth wall while Boo and Marie bicker about who will start the play. But once they begin to tell their tale, any self-consciousness subsides. Though the specifics involve plenty of “gear” and “blow” and sex and even death, the arc of the narrative is the shifting nature of a friendship between one street kid ultimately able to forge some kind of life and another condemned — wrongly — to a two-year prison term that, only one month in, seems like the curtailment of a life.
The play’s retrospective structure may seem like a cheat to those who prefer drama enacted, not merely described. (Not everything can be BrianFriel’s “Faith Healer,” which makes a magnificent virtue of the same approach.) But so urgent is the story on offer that you are soon caught up in a (mostly unseen) cast of characters, the other members of Boo and Marie’s six-person girl-gang chief among them.
Boo — the name is short for the Nigerian Bukola — is black and from a local girls’ home, while Marie, Boo’s white “best mate,” lives with her abusive, drunken dad. Both are happiest hitting the streets as members of an in-your-face posse that curries favor with the cops by offering their services.
Their rapport begins fractiously but soon turns into a friendship so intense that, says Marie, the other girls wonder whether the duo aren’t “a bit the other way.” The relationship is cruelly tested during an outing one night that goes bloodily awry and lands Boo behind bars. At this point, a reported drama turns into an epistolary one, but the actresses keep each exchange vitally alive, speeding around Es Devlin’s spare, clean set. (Rear-wall projections allow glimpses of the rest of the gang.)
Tina MacHugh’s lighting delivers its own charge in keeping with a pair of performances so symbiotically meshed that one can hardly tell where one begins and the other leaves off. Both find revealing moments of quiet amid the activity: Duncan-Brewster expressing Boo’s pleasure at knowing how to treat Marie’s occasional fits, Lowdell charting an acceptance of the kind of domesticity that, one feels, surprises even Marie.
The play is about starting anew as told from the bittersweet perspective of two people mindful of their past. But if it’s very moving, and it is, that’s because its subtext is on view for all to see — two young actresses announcing their own enormous future.