Carey Mulligan started her career on the main stage of London’s Royal Court — playing a narcoleptic schoolgirl in Kevin Elyot’s family drama “Forty Winks.” Fourteen years on, a star in her own right, she’s on the same stage all by herself, this time as a mother undergoing a string of awakenings. Riding on Dennis Kelly’s rollercoaster monologue “Girls & Boys,” Mulligan gives a phenomenal, unpredictable solo performance — a proper feat of acting — as a woman so self-assured she might just smash the patriarchy apart single-handedly.
With her blond hair pulled back, in an orange shirt and russet trousers, Mulligan stands onstage with an androgynous swagger. She pings off the sky-blue background of Es Devlin’s box-set to deliver a series of six short, conversational, speeches — Kelly’s script calls them “chats” — with the confidence of a stand-up comedian or a motivational speaker. Perhaps it’s the way she holds our gaze, or the rough edges of her estuary accent, or maybe just the control she has over proceedings, but there’s something arrestingly alpha about her.
Starting with the moment she clocks her future husband in an airport queue, knocking back two manipulative, faux-flirtatious models, Mulligan rattles through the ups and downs of their relationship. We see this absent man through her eyes: the awesome decisiveness with which he starts an antique business, the comforting size and solidity of him, the articulacy of his hands. But if we fall for him, sight unseen, it’s largely because of his effect on her — in particular, the unbreachable, irresistible confidence he instils.
That’s what rockets this working-class woman with no relevant experience into a dazzling television career. Seeing through a patriarchal industry’s barriers, she bats away interview questions with bullish braggadocio and breaks through every glass ceiling in her way. Her documentaries, on everything from high-end corruption in the American military to turf wars between ice-cream salesmen in south London, win massive acclaim. She is, in no uncertain terms, an inspiration: a one-woman maelstrom in an aggressive man’s world.
Between each speech, Kelly splices snapshots of her home-life. On Devlin’s dreamy white kitchen set, only the odd toy or child’s drawing in color, Mulligan mimes mothering two invisible kids: Leanne and her baby brother Darren. She does so with such impeccable precision and flow that it’s ever so slightly eerie — blank spaces where these two toddlers should be. Mostly though, it’s heroic and galling. This gutsy, independent woman — sharp as a pin, dry as gin — is stuck mopping faces, playing make-believe and reasoning with infants over buckets of mud. What a waste — no — what a wealth of labor and creativity, patience and talent gets poured into parenting rather than personal gain. Oliver Fenwick’s soft turquoise lighting makes it all seem somewhat unreal — the madness of motherhood, whole days dashing round, levelling with little ones. She looks like a goldfish in a bowl.
Mulligan makes the most of this enigma, not least the way she’s complicit in passing on violent, patriarchal norms to her children. You don’t exactly spot it, but Kelly’s structure splits her down the middle: the woman addressing us never mentions her kids, not until the play’s dying moments; the mother indoors thinks of nothing else. It’s that which makes Kelly’s play so shattering. Tiptoeing around spoilers, one might say she ends the play completely defined by motherhood, yet entirely estranged from it. Everything she has — everything she is — is obliterated.
Because “Girls & Boys” is, in a way, two plays in one. Towards the end, it changes tack, or something in it snaps. Something so unexpected and unthinkable occurs that it shunts the play completely out of shape. This isn’t just a plot twist, but a rupture — a mid-flight explosion or an abrupt act of terror.
It doesn’t always feel like Kelly’s story to tell — something about Mulligan’s character betrays a male author — but he tells it brilliantly, writing with such specificity to demand our credibility and peppering it with gasps that director Lyndsey Turner’s fine-tuned production delivers. The upshot is a startling play about men and women, parents and children that is at once a dissection of patriarchal structures and a shot across their bows.