It may be the saddest line of the year and it comes, typically quietly and matter-of-factly, in the middle of a phone call. “If you want to ask me things, you have to make it so I can say yes or no.” Only monosyllabic responses are safe for 10-year-old Mimi (Ciara Southwood), who is terrified of being overheard expressing real emotion by other girls at her 1990s boarding school. Elsewhere, the girls in “Kin” speak with astonishingly foul-mouthed self-confidence, but beneath the brittle dialogue, E.V. Crowe’s study of vanishing girlhood echoes with loneliness.Jeremy Herrin’s scrupulously directed production of Crowe’s full-length debut has a startling authenticity thanks in no small part to the bold decision to cast actors of the correct ages. The girls are 10- and 11-year-olds making highly impressive professional debuts, and with children that young it means two separate casts. Mimi shares bunk-beds – and a complex relationship – with Janey (Mimi Keene at the reviewed performance), who, superficially at least, is the more devil-may-care of the two. Throughout the winter term, the two of them taunt one another and struggle to assert themselves as they rush to embrace adolescent attitudes before puberty has barely been reached. Some of this is unexpectedly funny. Mimi learns she is going to play Proctor in the school production of “The Crucible” and is initially uncertain. Janey’s buoyant analysis of the advantages of the role enlightens her: “He fucks the 12-year-old who tricks him and he fucks his wife and he fucks some other kid in the jury during the trial.” But the girls use such persistently oversexualized dialogue in part as a shield for more complex, damped-down feelings of nascent sexuality that they channel through games of humiliation. Crowe’s strength is her ability to frame detailed, poignant observation about her characters’ carefully hidden fragility within a structure that looks naturalistic but is actually highly stylized. Scenes are played out of chronological sequence – which adds a degree of tension – and she has a pleasing fondness for cutting to the bizarre. We never see any of “The Crucible” but we do see Mimi in her production’s intermission engaged in a combative conversation with a fatuous school governor in the usually empty men’s toilets while dressed cowboy-like in the world’s least likely Proctor costume. The play’s major weakness is that despite a 70-minute running time, it’s stronger on situation and dilemma (beautifully caught by Bunny Christie’s chilly design) than fully engaging plot. It climaxes on a scene of emotional difficulty as a teacher (nicely deranged Annette Badland) confronts Mimi about her relationship with Janey. Is she being bullied and/or are the two girls having sex? Despite Herrin and his cast placing every beat of the text, the scene doesn’t quite land because the buildup has been so sub-textual. The coda, in which Mimi is left with the consequences of having spoken out, has a genuine ache to it. And if the effect of the play as a whole is that of a near miss, there’s more than enough evidence of real writing talent.
Royal Court Upstairs, London; 91 seats; £15 top
A Royal Court Theater presentation of a play in one act by E.V. Crowe. Directed by Jeremy Herrin.
Sets and costumes, Bunny Christie; lighting, Malcolm Rippeth; sound, Christopher Shutt; production stage manager Tariq Rifaat. Opened, reviewed Nov. 24, 2010. Running time: 70 MIN.
Janey Mimi Keene/Madison Lygo Mimi Ciara Southwood/Maya Gerber Mrs. B Annette Badland Nina Fern Deacon/Ellen Hill Mr. Thorne Kevin McMonagle Marcus Ollie Barbieri