'School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play' review – sparky study of beauty, identity and teen friendships

Read our four-star review of School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, now in performances at the Lyric Hammersmith through 15 July.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Jocelyn Bioh’s larky, irrepressibly likeable School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play receives a buoyant British premiere in a theatre capital that has significantly upped its intake of Black American work of late, not least by women. Acclaimed over two separate runs at MCC Off Broadway, the playwright’s cunning variant on the now time-honoured scenario of teenage girls giving one another grief has crossed the Atlantic with ease.

Monique Touko’s sparky production deftly skirts sitcom to highlight the applicability of a darker narrative that may be set at a desirable girls’ boarding school in Ghana in 1986 but speaks more widely to the ongoing, ever-desperate desire to fit in, often at considerable cost to one’s sense of self.

The teenagers assembled on Paul Wills’ flexible set dream of making it big as Miss Ghana 1986, which will lead them on toward the Miss Global Universe pageant and the attendant prestige. The goal would seem to require, at least at first, currying favour with Paulina (Tara Tijani, in a beaut of a performance), the queen bee who talks down with often-shocking candour to the classmates in her midst and freely boasts of all manner of achievements (a star jock boyfriend included) that will come back painfully to roost.

But Paulina’s plans are knocked for six by the arrival of the light-skinned Ericka (Anna Shaffer), a bi-racial transfer student newly arrived from Ohio whose politesse coexists with a tough-mindedness suggesting that the scheming Paulina may well have met her match. What ensues is a battle of control in which the indrawn, plus-sized Nana (Jadesola Odunjo) heads the line-up of social hangers-on cruelly put to the test.

Watching with an initial pride in the girls’ achievements that soon gives way to alarm at their misdeeds is a headmistress (Alison A Addo) keen to bask in her own reflected glory. Bustling about with the best intentions, this den mother of sorts can’t wait to parade her charges before an elegant visiting recruiter, Eloise (Deborah Alli) – herself a former Miss Ghana 1966.

Eloise, in turn, wants a Miss Ghana for the win so as to secure her share of the sizable cash prize that awaits her, the winner, and the school. It helps that Aburi, where the school is located, happens to be Eloise’s hometown from which she has been long-absent making her name overseas.

Herself Ghanian-American, Bioh was inspired by a real-life event that took place at just such a competition in 2011, and her play courses with an intimate understanding of the girls’ positions within a society whose stratifications are everywhere apparent. Fairer skin, for starters, would appear to be the way forward, even if the necessary lotions are essentially toxic.

There’s comedy to be had as some of the girls immediately move towards the moneyed Ericka, eager to bask in the exotic glow of someone “sent from heaven”; others, intimidated, impulsively sidle away, only for their allegiances to be upended once Paulina’s fierce grip on these friends begins to ebb.

Kinnetia Isidore’s costumes tell their own story of personal ambition taken to a sartorial plane as events build toward a pile-up of revelations that leaves more than one contestant feeling exposed.

Bioh is opening the Broadway season at Manhattan Theatre Club this autumn with Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, and Ericka’s coolly glamorous long hair is a topic of discussion here, eliciting envy upon sight. But the author has plenty to say about the complex weave of threats and counter-threats by which these characters operate, and the personal cost of family secrets – not to be revealed – from which one or another student cracks under pressure.

The talk is of boyfriends that may or may not be real and diets that are both a salvation and a scourge, as is so often the case. The mere mention of Bobby Brown prompts an instant frenzy of excitement, but Calvin Klein isn’t quite so lucky when the designer’s surname proves difficult for some of these embryonic fashionistas to pronounce. These characters yearn for a world they don’t fully understand within a society whose own identity is contingent upon affirmation from elsewhere.

The performers all look as if they are having a field day in a play that must be a blast to do, whether Heather Agyepong’s Ama is awakening to the malignancy of someone she once held as a friend, or the double-act of Bola Akeju and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers as the wonderfully named Mercy and Gifty are responding as the single unit that they sometimes are.

Odunjo makes a gorgeous professional stage debut as the shy Nana who discovers to her delight that she has a spine, and Tijani excels as the self-regarding ringleader of the pack who is brought down a rung or two: a life lesson for the character, perhaps, but one that allows this superb young actress to lead from the front.

School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play is at the Lyric Hammersmith through 15 July. Book School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play tickets now on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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